The views of the Alps from Lake Como in northern Italy at sunset left me exited for the days ahead. The next morning, we boarded a short ferry ride across the lake we drove across the border into Switzerland. Soon the Italian speaking part of southern Switzerland including the city of Lugano was in the rear view mirror. Our destination was the Bernese Alps in the canton of Bern.
Getting Around Switzerland
Driving in Switzerland is a treat, especially compared to driving in Italy. The Swiss keep their roads in immaculate condition, there aren’t tollbooths, and traffic wasn’t really much of an issue outside of the major cities. And if driving isn’t your thing, using the even more impressive rail system in Switzerland is an excellent way to get around and see the country. You will find the trains almost necessary in some circumstances as roads might not exist to some places. But the trains will literally get you to the top of a mountain. More on that in a bit.
It is impossible not be be thoroughly impressed with the engineering and work that went into creating such an efficient system of highways, mountain roads, and railways. Tunnels cut straight through mountain ranges, some lasting for many miles. I quickly lost count of the tunnels we drove through. One that does stand out though was the famous St. Gotthard Tunnel, one of the longest road tunnels in the world at 10.5 miles. If you’d prefer the views and don’t mind driving over the passes, there is no shortage of mountain roads that zig and zag up the mountainsides.
The Jungfrau region is located in the Bernese Alps and contain some of Switzerland’s highest and most scenic peaks. The Jungfrau itself summits at 13,642 feet (4,158 meters). Adjacent to it are other massive peaks including the Eiger and Mönch. These peaks and glaciers tower above the Bernese Oberland, the highlands of the canton of Bern.
Within the Bernese Oberland area lie several valleys, the most impressive (in my opinion) being the Lauterbrunnen Valley. Surrounding this beautiful valley are steep and high rock faces leading to higher plateaus, glaciers, and mountain peaks. The melting snow and ice from these mountains and glaciers generate large amounts of water which flow into many streams and rivers and eventually waterfalls. And 72 waterfalls can be found in the valley alone. Staubbach Falls, one of Europe’s tallest waterfalls, sits just above the town of Lauterbrunnen.
Several other towns are found perched in locations one would typically think of as inaccessible or illogical for a town to be located. But there they are, sitting high above the valley floor. And unless you want to hike up, towns such as Murren or Wengen are only accessible by train or tram, so you’ll have to leave your car below.
The Wengernalpbahn is one of these railways which connects the towns and resorts to Lauterbrunnen as well as the town of Grindelwald. These trains make their way seemingly effortlessly up the mountainsides. If you are looking to see the Jungfrau up close and personal, you can take a train from Klein Scheidegg to Jungfraujoch, the highest train station in Europe at over 11,000 feet above sea level. The Swiss are truly magnificent in their engineering feats.
Like many of the major cities of Switzerland, Lucerne sits on a large lake with mountains surrounding it. The Reuss River drains Lake Lucerne and flows through the oldest sections of the city. Some of the most popular attractions of Lucerne are the old covered wooden bridges. Chapel Bridge (Kapellbrücke), the most popular, dates back to 1333 but has largely been rebuilt since a fire destroyed much of it in 1993. Further down river is Spreuer Bridge (Spreuerbrücke), built in 1408. Both bridges are open to the public to walk through. Finally, adding a nice touch are the number of swans that call the lake and river home. It’s said the swans were introduced after several were gifted to the Swiss by France’s King Louis XIV in the 1600’s.
Located on the hills immediately above the center of town is the Museggmauer, a wall and series of nine watch towers which were built in the 14th century. Four of these towers are open to the public to explore and take in the views of the city and surrounding areas. At the Zyt Tower is the city’s oldest clock dating to 1535 which is still in operation today and chimes every hour but one minute ahead of the other clocks in the city.
Besides the historical sites of the city, beautiful Lake Lucerne is a popular retreat. If you want, you can rent a paddle boat or take a cruise and see the beautiful Alps from the water. And if you are looking for a real birds eye view of the area, you can take a tram up to Mount Pilatus nearby. Shopping and dining is also plentiful here. And don’t forget to leave room for treating yourself to some Swiss chocolate.
Switzerland is a clean, safe, efficient, and beautiful country with friendly and helpful people. It is an expensive place to visit, but I feel you truly get your money’s worth. I’m looking forward to returning to see more of it and of course to eat more chocolate.
Stay tuned for the last segment in the trip to Europe, coming soon!