Tuesday 12th October 2010, Lungerersee, near Lucerne, Switzerland
We felt rather sad to leave Germany behind after such a short visit. My understanding of German is making rapid progress after being refreshed from our visit through Austria and Germany and I felt loath to leave behind a country that has generally been so welcoming, friendly, clean and reasonably priced. However, this part of Switzerland is still German speaking, though even Ian finds it difficult to understand and, apart from its strange road markings and funny money, it's not yet so very different from the land we left behind this morning.
Switzerland is not part of the European Union and therefore has its own currency, the Swiss franc. There would seem to be 1.5 Swiss Francs to the £ and 1.3 to the euro. Knowing this still doesn't help much working out the prices of things in a hurry but we trust Swiss honesty completely. This off-season campsite for example should cost us15 Euros according to our book. All we had was one 100 Swiss Franc note from the ATM. They charged us 20 SF.
I don't think we will be doing much shopping here. Knowing prices are dearer than in Germany we did a food shop before leaving. We also filled Modestine with diesel which, although dearer than Austria, is still cheaper than Switzerland.
Motorways are free in Germany. In Austria we paid 7.5 euros to use the motorways for 10 days. Hungary and Romania charged similarly. In Switzerland however, the motorway vignette costs the equivalent of 30 euros and is valid for a year! This is quite impractical for a short-term visitor, forcing them off the motorways with their fast, smooth tunnels, obliging them to struggle up and over mountain passes on the ordinary roads. Also in Switzerland, not being part of the EU it does not conform to the rest of Europe concerning its road markings. Whereas everywhere else has blue panels indicating motorway routes and green for local ones, Switzerland is exactly the other way around. Several times I have already almost made the wrong choice which would certainly end me up on the motorway without a vignette and liable to a fine. We've still not really sorted out Swiss road markings either. Priorities seem different and getting into the correct lane is awkward. Railway lines and roads run together, side by side along the same route, criss-crossing each other at roundabouts. The train track passes through town centres and directly in front of people's houses so that they have to drive across it to enter their own garage or garden!
We used the free German roads as long as possible before crossing into Switzerland at Koblenz on the Rhine. (Yes, I know Koblenz is nowhere near here. It's a different one but on the same river, just to confuse everyone.) The last town in Germany in which to stop was Tiengen, a pretty little place to stroll around and to treat ourselves to morning coffee and Pflaumentorte as a farewell treat.
Around lunch time we turned off the main road and made our way down to Hallwiler See, one of the smaller, crystal clear lakes. The sun obliged us and we were able to enjoy our picnic outside beside the water. Generally though, the air has been keen and chilly for most of the day.
Our plan was to pass through Lucerne, stopping to explore the city before moving on to a campsite beside the lake. Almost everywhere in Lucerne however appears to be covered parking and Modestine is too tall to enter. Right in the city centre, struggling to work out which lane we needed, we had no time to dither seeking a parking space and were swept through the centre and out before we knew what was happening. In any case, we had no money for a parking meter other than our 100 Swiss Franc note. Even to get that we'd had to park illegally in one of the smaller towns and hope no traffic warden came by while we went in search of an ATM. What use is such a high denomination note when arriving in a country for the first time and needing to park and use the loo? The euro is so much more practical when there are so many national borders.
What we did see of Lucerne was not over inspiring though we understand the old centre, down near the lake is beautiful. With the afternoon drawing on, we were obliged to give up trying to park and allowed ourselves to be carried out of the city. It's infuriating but can't be helped.
The motorway swept along above the lake, passing smoothly in and out of tunnels. The ordinary roads that we were obliged to use however passed through Lucerne's suburbs, stopping at every set of lights and queuing at road works. What happens when the railway, the motorway and the local roads all run side by side along the water's edge and it is necessary to carry out maintenance and repairs? Well, the answer is send the cars out to drive on the lake! A floating pontoon had been constructed out into the lake while road works took place inside the tunnel. We bumped down from the road and rattled our way out across the water, bobbing slightly on the planking, water to either side, returning to land somewhere beyond the exit from the tunnel!
Leaving Lake Lucerne behind we climbed up into the first real mountains since reaching Switzerland. They are not yet particularly high but are steep and rugged. When we reached the campsite overlooking the Sarner See it was to discover it was already closed for the season! Fortunately we found another beside the next lake several kilometres further on. It is right on the water's edge, a long way from the facilities, very lonely, misty and extremely chilly. It does though have its charm. Sheltered beside the lake and surrounded by the pine-clad mountains the village farmsteads look like huge cuckoo clock houses, all dark wood, red shutters and flowery window boxes, standing scattered between green fields of contented cattle. The walls of the buildings are covered with tiny round wooden tiles that resemble fish scales. They are really delightful. High above on the hillside we can hear the gentle clanging of cow bells and there is a white cascade of water falling straight down the cliff face into the lake. Above us in the half light, the last cable car of the day is returning to the village.
Wednesday 13th October 2010, Thörishaus, near Bern, Switzerland
We are quickly becoming disenchanted with Switzerland. It has been a frustrating day and we have achieved nothing. Personally I'd like to cut our losses here and make a dash for the border into France but Ian is less defeatist than me and is determined we will see Bern and anyway, he is supposed to be meeting somebody at the library in Neuchatel – if we could only get internet access somewhere to check out when and where!
We have visited Switzerland before and have passed through it on our way to Italy. However we have never really spent time in the country to discover it for its own sake. We felt it was time to explore it in more detail, visiting some of its cities and its beautiful lakeside towns. We have been happily looking forward to it. Bear with me now, or skip this bit. I must rid myself of the accumulated irritation of the day so that I can become human again.
Regrettably Switzerland is the most difficult and unwelcoming country I can recall visiting. It seems designed to ruin the pleasure of any motorist trying to explore its towns and superb mountain scenery. Basically it all comes down to parking! Until now I would not have believed it possible for an entire country to make it physically impossible to park anywhere other than in designated places. The welcome sign at the entrance to most Swiss towns and villages is a notice warning that there is metered parking 0-24 7/7 throughout the town. The Swiss financial gnomes are keeping the country running on revenue from parking meters! It's not the cost I'm hopping mad about though. It's the impossibility of parking, or even stopping, if you don't have the right coins! We still only have paper money, unacceptable in parking meters, and even if you have coins, the machine will not give change so you are likely to pay over the odds. So how do you stop to get change and where do you get it? Even several kilometres outside of town centres it is impossible to stop anywhere unless you wish to use a restaurant or visit a doctor. They have parking for customers only. Even when we've seen car parks there have been barriers preventing a vehicle of Modestine's height from entering. I am quite exhausted from driving for hours on steep, winding roads, unable to pause to admire the vistas of waterfalls and mountain lakes, only to discover I am also unable to park when we come down into any of the little lakeside towns. We've been obliged to drive straight through and up into the mountains again. Yesterday I was upset at being forced to drive through Lucerne without stopping. Today I have done exactly the same at Interlaken. It looked a beautiful little town but nowhere near the centre would accommodate Modestine's height and way out in the suburbs we still needed to pay the same amount but had no coins to do so. Having wasted the morning, we decided to drive straight to this campsite where our book told us we could get easy transport into Bern for the afternoon. It transpires there is an hourly bus to the neighbouring village from where a train leaves every 30 minutes to Bern. With almost an hour to wait until the bus, we drove to the station hoping to leave Modestine there. It had five parking spaces and two were empty – it is after all a tiny rural village. However, we needed 4 francs to park even though we were taking the train. There is no ticket office – the station is unmanned. Machines issue the tickets and should give us change, but not enough to pay for the parking meter. So we stood and watched the train depart for Bern without us! Grrh!!
In a neighbouring town we eventually found a supermarket with restricted customer parking. We needed nothing but each clutching a high denomination banknote we made separate forays to the check-out, me with two tomatoes and Ian with a jar of jam. Most of the change was in lower denomination notes but pooling our small change we finally had enough for a parking ticket!!! Unfortunately it was now too late to take an expensive train ride into Bern! So from 3.30 this afternoon we have been kicking our heels at this insalubrious campsite on a cold grey afternoon with nothing to do. Tomorrow we've decided we will walk to the station. It should only take about 30 minutes at our pace, but with so much to see in Bern we really need to keep our energy for that.
I feel better for purging my irritation but I definitely don't like Switzerland very much. (Sorry Martine.) With three different languages and two different religions here I suppose the Swiss have learnt to be rather more tolerant than me. Being outside the European Union the country makes its own rules for the good of its own people rather than following the dictates of Brussels as the rest of us do. It does though make it very difficult for visitors. Everything is so complicated and nothing is explained. It is assumed everybody knows the rules concerning everything from different driving regulations to zonal tickets on the trains. How do we know how many zones we cross going to Bern or at what age might we qualify for pensioners' discounts? And we speak German! Heaven help anyone who doesn't! We just pray it will be easier in the French speaking part of the country.
And another thing while I'm about it!! This country is neutral and does not have a regular army. It does though have a system of conscription which means that every male citizen of a certain age has to spend time carrying out military manoeuvres on the mountain roads with tanks, guns and camouflage jackets. We've seen several convoys of them today and we recall seeing them on almost every visit we've made to Switzerland. When they've done all that I suppose the high flyers might qualify for strutting around the Vatican City in a funny uniform guarding the Pope! Why, I wonder, select soldiers from a mainly Calvinist Protestant nation to guard the head of the Catholic Church?
Below are a couple of photos Ian took through the window as we drove towards Interlaken. Wouldn't you be irritated at being unable to stop to admire it?
Thursday 14th October 2010, Thörishaus, near Bern, Switzerland
Can I revise my opinion of Switzerland a little please? After the aggravations of yesterday things could only get better today, and they did.
This morning we were up and off bright and early. It was very cold, summer had definitely said its farewell. Last night we discovered a track along beside the river and over a wooden bridge that we thought, with some confidence, might lead us to the village and the railway station. So this morning we followed a rough path through woodland, emerged into a field of surprised cows, crossed though a vegetable plot of pulled turnips and fennel roots and in record time we reached the village just short of the station. It's just as well as it then took ages working out the automatic ticket vending machine. Soon though we were gliding on silent rails through the countryside on our way to Bern, Capital of Switzerland and on the Unesco World Heritage list since 1983. At the charmingly named station of Blümpliz we paused for several shady looking passengers bound for the less than charmingly named village of Wankdorf to alight. The main station at Bern is right on the edge of the old town where most of the delights of the city are to be found. It's just as well we used the train. The only parking in the city is underground and very expensive. Without a car though, the city is sublime. The streets are almost traffic free and there is an excellent public transport system of trams, buses, trolley buses and funicular railways. For us though, the city was sufficiently compact to be able to walk everywhere with the entire day to do so.
What does Bern make you think of? For Ian it is the international convention on copyright while for me it is the bear pits. Somehow today we have reconciled the two with a visit to both the National Library of Switzerland and the bear pits. Along the way we have taken in the principal sights of the town, mainly from the exterior, including the 16th century clock tower or Zeitglockenturm with its mechanical puppets performing on the hour; the Parliament building (1851–1902) seat of the Swiss federal government, various galleries and national museums, kilometres of arcaded shops, numerous fountains, the open air market and the Town Hall.
Since childhood, when I discovered in the library the Adventures of Mary Plain, stories of a brown bear from the bear pits at Bern, I have longed to see the bears for myself. That a city should house a collection of huge brown bears continuously since the 15th century, simply to give pleasure to its citizens, is amazing! Legend has it that the name of the city comes from the first animal to be hunted in the surrounding forests and the captive bears have become the symbol of the city. Thankfully, since those early days, the conditions in which the bears live have improved. The old pits are still there, used as a tourist attraction and souvenir shops, while the bears are located immediately adjacent, on a huge terrace overlooking the river Aare.
All the time we were in Romania, up in the Carpathian Mountains, I was hoping to see a wild brown bear. I've had to wait until today to do so. They are huge and quite magnificent! I'm rather glad now we didn't meet one before! How can they reach that size when their diet is 80% vegetal? The younger ones were quite playful, climbing and digging, unperturbed by an audience of tourists. Meanwhile, Great Big Daddy Bear was striding around on one of the terraces looking busy but secretly doing very little. Mummy Bear however had fallen asleep – on a manhole cover!! Ian was distraught! It was one he's not seen before! How can you persuade a gigantic, recalcitrant brown bear to shift itself? In fact, many of the manhole covers in Bern have bears on then but not living ones!
I don't know whether the adventures of Mary Plain and the Owl Man are still published. I do hope so. Our children grew up with her and now I can't wait to introduce her to our grandchildren.
Leaving the Mummy Bear still snoozing on the manhole cover while the little ones scuffled in the dust beside her, we climbed up to the rose garden above the city for a photo-shot down on to the river and the old town around the Nydeggbrücke.
Most of the city is constructed from a greenish sandstone having been largely rebuilt following a fire in 1405 that destroyed the mainly wooden buildings. It wears well and the buildings and arcades are elaborately carved and decorated. We discovered the promenades and gardens behind the Cathedral and the Parliament building with views down to the river below.
Nearby is the Munster or Cathedral (1421–1598). It has the highest spire in Switzerland (328ft) though today it was swathed in plastic sheeting. Inside it is an agreeable, gothic building with few decorations.
By this time we were really hungry having been walking the streets since 9.30 in the cold. Restaurants and menus looked inviting. Prices did not. Having looked through the windows of several charming restaurants beneath the arcades, where well dressed Swiss bankers were enjoying delicious lunches with bottles of Chardonnay, we made our way back to the area around the main railway station in search of a sandwich. Even a salad roll was 7.50CHF (Swiss francs) - around £5, while a small bottle of water cost 4.50CHF. We ended up with substantial bowls of hot pasta with bolognaise sauce and cheese at 10CHF each at a stand in the station, while drinking our own bottle of water, refilled at the campsite. Rather like Norway, while food, drink and clothing seem to cost a great deal, house prices are relatively low. Prices in an estate agent's window for very pleasant housing in the centre of Switzerland's capital city compare quite favourably with Exeter!
Beneath one of the arcades we found the home of Albert Einstein. Born German, he later adopted Swiss nationality and lived here while working on his theory of relativity. Not understanding enough about the subject we decided to give the museum a miss, though at 3.00CHF, in theory it was relatively cheap!!
Crossing the Aare we found ourselves in the museum quarter. The national museum of Swiss history was hosting a special exhibition on the travels of Captain Cook. A glance at the published catalogue showed that several items had been loaned from the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter. Quite a cunning move on Exeter's part as our museum is currently closed for a multi-million pound makeover. Let Bern store some of the items for us! Our efforts to persuade the museum staff that we were on an official visit to check that Exeter's aboriginal spears were still okay failed dismally and we certainly didn't wish to pay 14.00CHF each to see them, so trotted round the corner to try our luck at the National Library of Switzerland.
The building is modern and rather uninspiring. The library receives one copy of everything printed in Switzerland, regardless of language. The online catalogue is in German, French, Italian and English. We browsed the reading room, caught up on today's news from the Financial Times – the only English language newspaper they take, and attempted to get onto the internet. All their lovely computers however were linked into their own online catalogue and those of other national library collections. The machine we were using almost spat at us when we tried to access email and Blogger, bringing up a German message telling us this was a research library and if all we wanted was to read email would we please vacate the computer immediately – or something to that effect. Ian thinks he has a bibliographical meeting in Neuchâtel tomorrow with one of the conservators from the university library but we've found nowhere in Bern to get access to our email to find out where and when.
Also across the river in the museum district we discovered a monument to the International Telegraphic Union founded in Paris in 1865. There is also a postal and communications museum here. Bern is the headquarters of the postal, telegraph, railway and copyright unions.
By this time the cold, and being on our feet all day, was taking its toll. We'd seen the city centre pretty thoroughly from the outside so made our way back towards the station, browsing the stunning individual shops beneath the arcades as we went. Every window was a work of art, regardless of what was for sale. Many were selling jewellery and watches of course. The Swiss are renowned for their luxury precision watches, and also for lenses and optics. Fashion shops were full of lovely garments I'd actually like to wear if I could afford them, rather than the trendy rubbish fashions in most high street shops in Britain. There were patisseries and chocolate shops with windows decorated in autumn colours with nuts, pumpkins, autumn leaves, prickly hedgehogs and fluffy rabbits. There were shops selling wonderful oriental rugs while others specialised in leather goods. Even Ian was impressed with how stunning all the shops looked.
Around the town we cannot fail to have noticed reproductions of the paintings of the acclaimed local artist Paul Klee who was associated with Van Gogh. The Art Gallery houses some 2,000 items by him.
We reached the station just in time for the train back here to Thörishaus-Dorf from where we walked back along beside the river and through the woods. Once back in the warmth of Modestine I promptly fell asleep until time to cook supper. It has been an enjoyable and very full day.
Friday 15th October 2010, Pontarlier, France
This morning Ian paid for our two nights at the campsite at Thörishaus. He paid in Euros rather than Swiss Francs because, for some incomprehensible reason, it worked out a lot cheaper!
Soon we were passing through very pleasant rural countryside, along Swiss valleys and through villages of wooden farmsteads. Beside the road were piled brightly coloured gourds and squashes with an honesty box for anyone developing a sudden overwhelming urge to own a gigantic pumpkin.
As we approached Neuchâtel we moved from the German to the French speaking area of Switzerland. It does not come suddenly as it does when crossing borders, but seems to gradually merge and move from one language to the other. Sometimes a sign would be in German in one part of a village, and in French on the opposite side of the road.
Reaching the outskirts of Neuchâtel we began to panic about parking. In fact it was considerably easier than in the German area. The French influence has reached this far into Switzerland and there was actually some free roadside parking! Finding a spot for Modestine we left her and continued into the centre on one of the city's clean and efficient trolley buses. Tickets are bought from machines but you need the right coins. The bus dropped us around 10.30am exactly where we wished to be, in the heart of the city just outside the joint University and Public Library.
Of the person Ian had hoped to meet there was no sign. The research room is very slow and old fashioned and Ian wasted so long filling in forms and waiting for the items he needed not to arrive, that it was lunch-time before they apologetically told him they were closing and the items would not be available until 2pm!!!
So off we went for lunch and to spend two hours exploring the city. When we returned, true to their word, the items were ready and, because we'd wasted so much time, they permitted Ian to photograph them all so he can transcribe them later.
Neuchâtel sits on the northern shore of the lake of the same name near the border with France. It is at the heart of the Swiss watch-making industry. It has a population of around 33,000 but with its immediate surrounding area it is nearer 80,000. Its historic centre is clean and smart with some impressive buildings constructed in golden coloured sandstone, and many attractive fountains.
The University buildings face the lake, as does the shared public and university library.
Above the town, steep cobbled streets lead up to the castle from where there are good views down over the roofs of the city and out across the lake. Up here too, is the gothic Collégiale church, started in 1185 and consecrated in 1276. The most impressive feature of its interior is the cenotaph of the Counts of Neuchâtel (1372) with its life-size statues.
Down in the centre of the town stands the Hôtel de Ville (1790), designed by Pierre-Adrien Paris, chief architect of Louis XVI. Around it there are tasteful pedestriansied shopping areas and squares with restaurants and cafes. People seem to have plenty of time to enjoy meeting with friends for coffee. Even in the chill temperatures of today many seemed happy sitting outside.
The vast lake has a port for yachts and sailing craft at Neuchâtel while larger ships ply around the lake. Whereas the coasts around Britain are crowded with gulls, the shore of the freshwater lakes of Switzerland are invariably crowded by hundreds of cheeky and tame sparrows.
None of our campsite books mentioned any open campsites in the area. The tourist office told us of one a few kilometres further round the lake. When we reached it the price was far more expensive than anywhere we have yet encountered in Switzerland. With France so near we decided to head for Pontarlier. We climbed up from the lake into a classic Jurassic landscape of sheer bare limestone cliffs protruding through a shining forest of leaves in their glorious autumn colours. Soon we had crossed the border and were back on our familiar and much loved roads of the French Jura. It seems very strange reaching a familiar countryside from the opposite side, particularly with all the very different experiences we've had over the past few weeks. We've always thought how far it is across France from Normandy to Franche-Comté, now we appreciate how close it is to the rest of Europe and recognise certain Swiss and German similarities we'd not previously fully appreciated.
By now though, darkness was falling and it was too late to make it as far as Champagne-sur-Loue. Besides, Susanne would not yet be expecting us. In Pontarlier the campsites were closed. With temperatures dropping to almost freezing at night we opted for this cheap hotel out on the industrial estate. It costs about the same as the Swiss campsite but we have a comfortable, clean bed with TV and wifi. Nor do we need to cross a field to use chilly shower block in the morning!
Once here we rang Susanne, who does not use the internet so is unaware of where we might be. She has still not received the postcard we sent from Austria warning her to expect us on 16th October! She was astonished to know we were so near but assures us there is no problem. She had asked us to call on our way back from Romania and had wondered whether we would actually do so. So tomorrow we will be in my beloved French village with our dear friends once more.