A not-to-be-overlooked perk of living in Europe is its rail system. Jessica and I had often spoken of doing a trip by train so, when we moved to Italy, we stopped just talking about it and began to seriously plan the journey. Arranging the logistics for the 15-day, 10-city tour seemed daunting at first but, after the route was plotted, the Interrail tickets bought, the train reservations made, the flights booked, and the hotel rooms reserved, the real anxiety set in. We were well-familiar with navigating airports, but train stations were another animal. We entered our first train terminal confident only in the fact that we would learn much in the coming two weeks.
The first leg was a two-hour flight from Brindisi to Geneva, Switzerland, and a quick (and free) train ride from the airport to the center of this incredibly expensive city on a glistening alpine lake complete with refelctions of the Alpine mountains that surrounded it. After checking into our painfully-expensive (though quite austere) hotel and dropping off the small backpacks that represented our only bits of luggage, we took a stroll along the lakefront, noting the number of Bentleys, Porsches and big Beamers, and past too-expensive hotels.
“We’re not in Puglia anymore, Toto,” I said, but to Jessica, not Toto.
We had an incredibly expensive dinner at an amazingly mediocre Indian restaurant all while listening to a husband and wife full-throatedly talking about women’s breasts (Husband: “I never realized how many different kinds of tits there were.” Wife: “Neither did I and I have tits.”) as their two teenage sons sipped on their Coca Colas. (“We’re really not in Puglia anymore, Toto”) We went back to our hotel, arising early the next morning so that we could stop at the first Starbucks we had seen in many months before catching the train to Lausanne. We inexplicably had to wait for the Starbucks to open that morning, inexplicable since it was nearly 7:00 when we arrived but we would learn that Switzerland is a late-rising but expensive culture. We savored each drop of the two grande cappuccini we ordered and Jessica scraped the bottom of the little plastic cup of yogurt she bought, our having spent the equivalent of $24 for the three items.
It is only a half-hour trip from Geneva to Lausanne so it was much too early to check into our next over-valued hotel room. We checked our backpacks at the hotel before heading out to catch a bus to the Chateau de Chillon, which made all the more perplexing the question we got from a fellow bus-waiter.
“Are you guys going to the hostel?” the young stranger asked.
“No. Are you saying that we look like we’re going to a hostel?” I responded. He didn’t react.
In fact, we were staying at an Ibis Hotel. This European brand became our go-to chain on our trip across the continent not only because the hotels represent good value (read: good but cheap), but they are always located in city centers or close to public transportation. In Switzerland, the Ibis Hotels even provide guests with free passes for buses and trains, an offering the we took full advantage of.
I should note here that this is not your typical travel blog so please don’t expect to read boring descriptions here of museums, castles, forts, government buildings, blah, blah, blah. If you want that, google Rick Steves who was our constant guide throughout the trip and from whom you can learn such things as the fact that the hot dog is called a wiener throughout most of Europe because it was “invented” in Vienna (Wien, in the German language) by a guy from Frankfurt except that in Vienna itself, it’s called a frankfurter. Got it? Anyway, we found Lausanne to be like Geneva in the respect that, at the slightest provocation, businesses extracted large amounts of money from us.
We spent some time wandering through the Olympic Museum in Lausanne and it was time well-spent. The exhibits included the uniforms (Can a Speedo be considered a “uniform?”) worn by Olympic athletes, medals won, films of the competitions and a wonderful historical perspective on the Games. It almost made us forget about the performance-enhancing drug scandals, the graft and corruption surrounding the IOC, and the insertion of politics that permeates the modern Olympics.
The next morning, Jessica passed on the Starbucks yogurt so our cappuccini bill was only $20. The train we caught that morning took us to Bern, Switzerland’s capital city. The town center boasts six miles of shopping but we could afford none of it. Bern was, like the rest of Switzerland it seems, expensive.
Our fourth day on the road started with a train ride to Zurich, a city where things tend to cost a lot. In this northern Switzerland city, we stayed in a hotel called an Ibis Budget Hotel. Our room had a bunkbed, the shower was right next to the bed, and the stall where the toilet was had a swinging door like that in a Dodge City saloon. The mattress felt like something manufactured by Weyerhauser and there was no thermostat. The place would make a Spartan uncomfortable and was just a tiny step up from camping. But, at least it was right next to train tracks and just across from an open-all-night bar. (I just don’t know how people can afford to drink all night here.) I guess this is why we only had to pay $130 for the night.
We roamed the streets of Zurich, passing stores with familiar names and high prices, and came upon a restaurant that announced Mexican fare. Since Mexican cuisine is not readily available in Puglia and, despite the fact that I had never heard anything about the quality of Mexican food in Switzerland, we stopped. The lack of authenticity in what was set before us was obvious when we tasted the “Hot Sauce.” Instead of being spicy, the red sauce was simply warmed ketchup. Oh well. At least the meal was expensive.
We left Switzerland and it left us with some indelible impressions:
- It’s expensive.
- It has a natural beauty that few places possess with stunning mountain views, quaint architectural elements and dramatic lakescapes.
- The country’s renowned neutrality extends beyond its politics and characterizes its food, wine and, in many respects, its culture. There just isn’t much there to distinguish them.
- The trains run perfectly on time, a function, I suppose, of there being so many clocks around.
After a day in Zurich, we strapped on our backpacks, jumped on yet another train, and, without having had a single morsel of chocolate during our 4 days in Switzerland, headed off to find some place cheaper.