Switzerland is my idea of tourist paradise. True, I can think of dozens—no, hundreds—of other countries, states, towns, villages and regions which are equally (if not more) scenic, historic and otherwise attractive, but very few are able to rival Switzerland in making travel easy, comfortable and enjoyable for the visitor. Switzerland succeeds on all counts, and how! The countryside is gorgeous, with swathes of woodland alongside meadows studded with wildflowers and picturesque cows (or, occasionally, sheep), each with a perfect bell hanging round its neck. Switzerland also happens to be the only place where I’ve found sheep and cows grazing inside cities—my favourite Metro station in Lausanne was one which had a strip of pasture next to it. When the automatic doors slid open, we’d always hear the gentle tinkling of cow bells.
Then there are the ubiquitous flowers: pink, blue, purple, white, yellow—in every conceivable colour, either carefully cultivated or growing wild in a little patch of soil. There are the Alps, the vineyards, the tranquil blue lakes with their elegant swans and their ducks with iridescent emerald heads. There are flower clocks and imposing old châteaux, and wooden chalets with window boxes full of flowers. There are waterfalls, quaint clocks, some of the best chocolate in the world, and fondue to die for.
As if that isn’t all, everything’s superbly managed: there aren’t any beggars or touts pulling at you; there are no pickpockets, almost no buskers (though I personally don’t mind buskers), and everything’s clean and well maintained. You don’t find yourself wondering whether your train/bus/boat will be on time (it will; I’m sure Swiss roosters also have a designated time for the daily cock-a-doodle do!) Lots of people understand English. And if, like me, you can get the gist of a little French if it’s spoken slowly, you should be able to manage in most of Western Switzerland, where French is always spoken fairly slowly.
All of which, of course, makes one wonder why I’m even bothering to write this section on tips. But spending two weeks travelling between Lausanne, Bern, Geneva, Fribourg, and Gruyères, I discovered a few things that just might help a first-time traveller, especially if you’re travelling on a budget. So here goes.
1. Get a Swiss Pass. This is my top tip. Even if you don’t look at the rest of my suggestions, consider this one very seriously. The Swiss Pass is available for varying durations and number of individuals, plus there are flexible passes. Tarun and I, for example, bought an 8-day pass for the two of us. This cost us €300, and entitled us to unlimited travel for a period of 8 consecutive days on any form of public transport—intercity trains, Metro trains, trams, buses, and paddle steamers. In addition, it allowed us free entry to most museums (the only ones not included are private museums like the Einsteinhaus in Bern) and to many other attractions, such as châteaux, show dairies, etc.
Soon after we arrived in Switzerland we realised just how invaluable the Swiss pass is. A round trip from Lausanne (where we were staying) to Geneva would cost the two of us CHF100 (The Swiss franc is almost the same value as the Euro). And Geneva is one of the nearest cities to Lausanne; going to Bern or Interlaken would’ve been even more expensive. Our itinerary—with daily trips out into the countryside, sometimes with travelling through most of the day—would have cost us a very pretty packet if we hadn’t been carrying our pass.
The Swiss Pass has to be bought in your own country, from the authorised dealer. You pay in your own currency, and once you get to Switzerland, you have to have the pass endorsed at the nearest travel office (a railway enquiry centre at a train station, for instance). The official will check the passport(s) of the individual(s) mentioned on the pass, and will then stamp the current date on the pass, thus `inaugurating’ it, so to say. Note that the pass entitles you to travel second class. Also, travel on special trains—such as the GoldenPass Panoramic—requires you to make a reservation, even though the actual fare is covered under the Swiss Pass. Similarly, for trains connecting Switzerland to other countries, although the stretch within Switzerland is covered by the Swiss Pass, you’ll still need to reserve seats for that stretch.
Do yourself a favour and get a Swiss Pass. The €300 we spent purchasing it back home in India (very efficiently delivered, in just two days) would, if we’d travelled on normal tickets, paid museum entry, etc, been exhausted in just over two days. Unbelievably good value for money.
2. Look for the i. The letter i, in white on a dark blue background, denotes (as it does in many other countries), a tourist information centre. In Switzerland, you’ll find these either inside airports or train stations, or in very close proximity. Our routine was to emerge from a platform into the central hall of a train station, look around to see if there was a tourist centre there (there’s one in Lausanne’s train station), and if not, to walk out onto the street and look around—in Bern, Fribourg and Geneva, for example, we saw signboards outside the station indicating the way to the tourist centre.
You’ll find loads of free tourist literature, including very useful maps that often have special tourist-oriented walks marked out on them. At least in the larger or more touristy destinations, staff at the tourist centre will also speak English. Our only encounter with someone who spoke "un peu" English was an enchanting and very helpful lady at Lutry whom I finally managed to converse with using sign language, whatever little French I knew, and whatever English she knew.
3. Try the wine. Swiss wine—rarely heard of outside the country, since nearly all is consumed within Switzerland—is superb. If you like wine, do try some. The vineyards along the shore of Lac Leman between Lausanne and Chillon, for instance, do their own bottling and produce some truly awesome vin.
While on the subject of wine, it’s probably appropriate to touch on food as well. Traditional Swiss specialities like fondue, raclette and Bernerplatte are all very rich in cheese, meat and potatoes—great if you’ve been cycling, hiking or skiing and need to shore up your strength. If you’ve been sitting in a train all day or strolling leisurely through a museum, go easy on the cheese! Or, as my cousin’s husband suggested, wash it down with a good swig of wine.
4. If you’re in a hurry, don’t use the boats. The paddle steamers on Lac Leman are very picturesque and should be experienced at least once—but not if you’re in a hurry to get anywhere. We ended up spending nearly two hours doing the Ouchy-Chillon crossing, when a bus and train could’ve got us there in less than an hour.
5. Pack food for long hauls. If you’re going on a longish trip that’ll involve frequent changes of train, bus or boat, carry your own food. This point was brought home most forcibly for us when we went to Jungfrau, and changed trains at Ouchy, Montreux, Interlaken Ost, Grindelwald, Kleine Scheidegg, Lauterbrunnen, again Interlaken Ost, Bern, and Lausanne in a little over 12 hours. Each train arrived just in time for us to disembark, run across to another platform to catch the next train and settle down in our seats before the train started. Not all trains have dining cars, either, so if you aren’t carrying your own grub, you may end up hungry. In any case, if you’re on a tight budget, eating in a dining car isn’t recommended.
Another tip for when you’re buying food: many train stations have counters that dispense pastries, sandwiches, aerated drinks, juice and coffee—but you’ll also be able to buy almost the same stuff at food stores, at a much lower price. And many stations either have a food store within the station, or you’ll find one nearby.
6. Swiss francs, not Euros. Some—a very few—restaurants or retailers in Switzerland accept Euros. If you aren’t going to use a credit card or ATM card, but will be carrying currency you’ve brought into the country, make sure you bring Swiss francs, not Euros. You lose some money in the way of exchange rates when converting Euros to Swiss francs.