Having left Venice very early in the morning, we rode our train to Milan, where unfortunately we didn’t have time to leave the train station to look around. From there we took the next leg of our journey, up through the Alps and into Switzerland. We knew we wouldn’t have much time in Switzerland but thought it would be a good place to break up the journey from Venice to Lyon. Having seen the Alps from the Bavarian side, I was surprised to see them look so different from the Italian side. More brown than gray, the land was also covered in grapevines. It turns out that Switzerland has a huge wine industry, but you’ll be forgiven for not knowing anything about it, as only about 2% is exported, and that mostly goes to Germany.
Entering Switzerland was a reminder that it is not part of the EU. It was a reminder of other things as well. At a stop just before the border, the train picked up border guards who came through the train checking IDs and passports. It is noteworthy who was ‘randomly’ given more intense scrutiny, and how they maybe didn’t look like me.
The Swiss countryside is beautiful and as expected, their trains are clean and efficient. We arrived at the train station in Geneva and were able to quickly find our hotel. We tend to stay near transit hubs when possible. Often the hotels are a bit cheaper there, catering more to business travelers than luxury tourists. Since we tend to use local public transit, these hotels are often in convenient locations for our needs. Apparently ours was in the local ‘red light’ district, but we saw little to no evidence of that. I think the only thing even vaguely ‘off’ was the sometimes loud music being played a block or so away. We did pass the nicest KFC I have ever seen. It turns out KFC is pretty popular in parts of Europe, and the locations I’ve seen are far more moderne and fancy than what you tend to find in the States.
We decided to wander around a bit and look for somewhere to get a bite to eat. There were fast food places near the train station, but we were hoping for something a bit more ‘local.’ I’m a jeans and T-shirt guy, but since I wasn’t sure where we were headed for food, I figured I’d try to dress a bit nicer, putting on a (gasp!) polo shirt. Hey, it’s got a collar. That’s almost like dressing up. Anyway, looking at various restaurants as we strolled about, it seemed that almost everyone was dressed in suit and tie and cocktail dress. A couple glimpses at menus and sticker shock started to set in. We knew Switzerland was expensive (the exchange rate was already not ideal for the American dollar), but really seeing it in person is something else. Much of Geneva seems to cater to business travelers and people with expense accounts. Finally we came to a local joint called The Little Kitchen Geneve that had a hipster/college kid vibe to it, where the prices were…um…less expensive. The food was quite good and we got to try some Swiss wine, which wasn’t bad. Walking around a bit more (by this point it was dark and a bit chilly), we got a sense of the sort of “downtown” area before heading back to our hotel.
On our one full day in Switzerland, we took a day trip to Gruyères. My boss had tipped me off about a museum devoted to H.R. Giger that was there and my wife knew it was where the cheese comes from. That was more than enough for me. This day was another example of how much easier it is to get around in many European countries, even when you don’t speak the language. We took a train out to a little stop in the middle of nowhere, then switched to a local commuter line that went through the countryside until we reached Gruyères itself. It was easy to get the ticket and find the train, and our trip was very comfortable. We did run into some confusion returning, because our ticket was for a train that ran infrequently back to Geneva and we would have had to wait for many hours, but the attendant at the transfer station told us as long as our ticket was for Geneva, any train headed there was OK. How easy is that?
Gruyères is one of those medieval towns up on a hill. It looks like something out of a movie, dominating the lower lands around it. The train let us off right in front of the cheese factory, which we stopped into, just to take a look. They offer tours, but the timing was a bit off for us. So we reluctantly left to head up the hill to the old town. It was definitely a climb, but the whole thing was so wonderfully atmospheric. It didn’t hurt that it was a gray, overcast day and there was fog rolling down from the nearby mountains, giving the place a very Hammer Horror vibe. Once you go through the gate, the spell is broken a bit. It’s a cute medieval town, but it’s also clearly a commercial spot for tourists. Chocolate and cheese shops squeeze between boutique hotels and everything feels like a very modern gloss has been put over the authentic base. It’s not unpleasant. I don’t want to give that impression. It seems very nice, and to be honest, I’d love to stay in one of the little hotels some day and spend a few days exploring the area. Just be prepared for a weird old-new-old mix that can be a bit unsettling.
Speaking of unsettling, as you walk toward the castle that towers over one end of the walled town, you pass through one of those marvelous medieval gates formed when a building’s higher level passes over the street, connecting to another building. Looking in the window to the left you’ll see a bar filled with strange decor. Worry not. You’ll want to check it out later. Turn right and you’ll see the reason. The H.R. Giger Museum is much more extensive than you might think, with a great deal of the man’s art on display. If you’re a fan, it’s well worth the price of admission and you could spend a great deal of time. When you’re finished, go across the street to the bar, have a drink and get a cheese plate. Compared to Geneva, the prices in Gruyères are a downright bargain. We also checked out Gruyères Castle for a bit more of the town’s history. The castle is cool and gives a lot of great views of the surrounding valley. You can see a view of the town from the castle’s heights here.
Heading back to Geneva, we grabbed our final meal in Switzerland, at Holy Cow, a Swiss burger joint near the train station. It was good, but again, the prices in Geneva are on a different level. It remains the most expensive place I’ve ever been, topping New York City with ease. I assume, given more time, we could have discovered more working class places to eat. Even in expensive cities, there are usually places that normal folk can eat at and not have to take out a second mortgage. But yikes.
On the following morning, we boarded the train for a short trip over to our next stop in Lyon, France.