Category Archives: Travel Guide

Travel Guide: Interlaken, Bern, Lucerne, Zurich

Over the summer, my parents and I decided that Switzerland was a reasonable “halfway” destination to spend the winter holidays. It’s not really halfway but it was so, so delightful! Now that I’ve been to Switzerland in the winter, I’d love to go back in the summer. And fall. And spring. This blog post will detail my travels through Interlaken, Bern, Lucerne, and Zurich, all of which are easily accessible by train. Be aware, though: Trains in Switzerland are not cheap. Timely, clean, comfortable, and efficient, but not cheap.


Interlaken

I was alone in Interlaken for the first two nights of travel. It was pouring for much of the first day but I found myself some glühwein (mulled wine) and waited for it to stop.

It was lovely in the afternoon when the sun came out.

I walked around town and took pictures of mountains, hardly able to believe where I was. I watched where the sun fell and tried to capture how it lit up the trees and the snow. It made me laugh how the grass was perfectly green but there was snow up on the mountains.

It also really tickled me to see the Catholic and Protestant churches right next to each other and to hear their bells ringing differently but at the same time.

The sun rose late (shortly after 8am) and set early (4:45pm) in Interlaken and Christmas Day was clear and cold. Around 9am I set off on a walk along the River Aare to Ringgenberg, a town about 5km away. The walk took me through little neighbourhoods by the water and in the hills. I passed a few other people along the way and perfected greeting people, “Good morning!” in German.

The main attraction in Ringgenberg was the church tower, which is open to visitors at any time. Services were going on when I arrived and it was a really special experience to climb the church tower alone and look out at the world while listening to songs that I couldn’t understand.

The sun was fully up as I walked back to Interlaken. I’d hoped for a coffee but settled myself on a log for some almonds instead.

After the best of the three rösti I had during my time in Switzerland, I spent the afternoon on a short walking trail called the Clara von Rappard loop, which took me up into the hills and the woods on the opposite side of Interlaken. There were eight historical markers with information about Clara and her life along the path, but I regrettably don’t speak German.

Once it got dark, I headed to the Ice Magic skating rink in the centre of town. I spent a few minutes watching the skaters before retreating into the tent of food and drink stalls, warmed by space heaters and fires. I stood with my glühwein at a small table in the corner and I watched and marveled.

Certain things make sense to me. Life shared with those around us, with laughter and goodwill, makes sense to me.

Bern

The following morning I took the train to Bern to meet my parents who had just landed from Toronto. The weather was cold and dreary but it was so great to see them. December 26 is a public holiday in Switzerland so much of the capital city was closed until evening when restaurants opened for dinner. We spent the day walking around and taking in the feel of the city.

We saw the little performance at the clock tower, watching the figurines in the mechanism move and dance as they have been for hundreds of years . . .

. . . examined the ornate fountains across the city, which had very cold water . . .

. . . and admired the exterior of Bern’s Minster while the interior underwent renovations.

We also went to the Einstein Museum because my dad is a math/science guy. There was a lot to read and a few videos that claimed to explain Einstein’s theories in “four easy lessons”. I have to be honest, I gave up halfway through lesson three.

Bern’s old town is built high above the River Aare and the graceful bridges made me feel like we were floating.

The next day we visited the Christmas market, which had been closed on actual Christmas. This was the first of several Christmas markets on this trip and while it was small, I was glad walking around and watching other people enjoying themselves.

Afterwards we walked out to Zentrum Paul Klee, not because any of us was interested in Klee but because the grounds are worth visiting. The walk showed us what the residential area of Bern looks like, too, which is obviously nothing like the UNESCO site old town. The museum was intended to fit into the landscape and become part of it, and there are functioning fields and gardens there in seasons other than winter.

We found a much larger Christmas market and food fair on the other side of Parliament later that day. We spent the evening there walking, drinking glühwein to stay warm, and tasting some of the many cuisines on offer.

For people who don’t celebrate Christmas, we were having a great time celebrating Christmas. Whatever is it that brings a community together in a way that exudes warmth and care . . . all of that is something I’m glad to be part of.

Lucerne

By the time we arrived in Lucerne the next morning, I had a pretty good feel for Swiss cities around Christmas time. And I liked them a lot. I really enjoyed Lake Lucerne and I’d love to see it in the summer. (Are you sensing a theme? Me, too.) I took a walk around the lake the second morning we were there and it was a beautiful change from the old town and surrounding city.

But let’s start at the beginning. Lucerne felt different from either of the previous cities because the old town’s narrow, twisting streets are peppered with little squares. The buildings are painted and tell stories of what Lucerne used to be. I loved looking at them and trying to make sense of the history surrounding us. I also loved eating fondue, which was our first meal here.

Lucerne is famous for its bridges and they’re as pretty at night as they are during the day.

I spent a lot of time around the lake the next day, from the aforementioned walk in the morning to a boat ride later in the afternoon. The historical narrative provided during the ride was interesting and time on the water definitely provides a different view of Lucerne and its surroundings.

My mum and I walked around at night, as well, and I really enjoyed seeing the lights and the way the colours of the sky and the water changed at the sun set. It felt like finding ourselves just peeking out from under a blanket and marvelling for the first time at the world around.

Zurich

Our last stop in Switzerland was Zurich, which was very different from the previous stops. Zurich is a big, fancy city and it feels like one with designer shopping streets and luxury hotels. Naturally, the old town is beautiful . . .

. . . but it also has the signs of life that remind you that it is a living, breathing, modern place. I liked that a lot.

We walked along the River Limmat in the sunshine (our first sun in days!) and visited the Grossmünster, Zurich’s largest church with two huge towers.

My dad and I climbed the narrow, twisting staircase of one tower, which involved some negotiation with people climbing in the opposite direction. The sun was fully out by the time we got to the top and the view was spectacular.

We also went to the Fraumünster, a smaller church that used to be a Benedictine Abbey. We wanted to see it specifically because Marc Chagall designed the stained glass windows. With only one exception, they depicted scenes from the Old Testament. No photos allowed, but go visit!

I think the best spot to see Zurich is at the Lindenhof, a park built on what used to be a Roman fortification. It’s a bit like a hill in the middle of a city. Apparently hundreds of years ago, recognising that whoever controlled the area would control the city, the citizens of Zurich voted to prohibit building on the land and it has been a park ever since. There were a couple groups of old men playing chess with giant sets and a bunch of tourists taking photos, but the people-watching would probably be excellent at any time.

The Sechseläutenplatz is Zurich’s largest main square and we walked there to see the Opera House, which is stunning. Like elsewhere, there were Christmas lights and food stalls, including a few selling glühwein for takeaway. Naturally I couldn’t resist.

The next day we visited the Swiss National Museum, which is probably the best museum I’ve ever been to. We allotted two hours when we initially arrived and then extended that an hour and then another thirty minutes, leaving only because we were hungry. There were permanent collections on the history of Switzerland; clothing, artifacts and fully reconstructed palace rooms; the city of Zurich; and a portrait gallery that I didn’t get to visit, as well as a few other collections. The temporary exhibits taught us about Switzerland’s relationship with Indian textiles, and nativity scenes from around the world.

The museum was fascinating not just because of what it contained but because of how the information was presented. Each exhibit was highly interactive including stunning programs on iPads that allow visitors to look at objects up close and take mini guided tours of portions of the exhibits. There was a lot to touch and physically manipulate, as well. We were extremely impressed and learned a great deal about Switzerland in a very short amount of time. I’d highly recommend a visit!

My mum and I walked along Lake Zurich in the afternoon and the light was so pretty on the water. It was New Year’s Eve and the markets were setting up all over again, which was fun to see.

Switzerland in the winter was a cold but magical placed filled with lights and good wishes. While I’d love to see it in the summer, I really enjoyed the atmosphere of the winter holidays and appreciated wandering streets that were probably less busy than they would be at another time of year. Early on New Year’s Day, basking in the week that had passed, we boarded the train to Salzburg. Stay tuned!

View of the Alps from a hill overlooking a cemetery in Bern

Travel Guide: Yogyakarta

Yogyakarta, also known as Jogja because it’s easier to say (according to the local guide who answered my question about that), is located on the Indonesian island of Java. It’s the only Javanese city still ruled by a monarch and is home to Indonesia’s best universities. A large student population, special government status, and a unique heritage and culture make Jogja a lovely place to spend a long weekend. I’ve been wanting to visit for some time and I was really glad to finally have the opportunity to do so.

We arrived early in the afternoon and started off with a walk to get our bearings. Jogja is bright, sunny, and hot and we were happy to take the suggestions of a few locals who stopped us to chat. They sent us to a couple batik art galleries and told us about cultural events taking place over the weekend. As we walked, we saw quite a few murals, which is always a highlight for me.

We walked along Jalan Malioboro, a very busy central street lined with shops and street sellers selling souvenirs and batik clothing. It was entirely too hot and overwhelming to be there during the day and we decided to go back in the evening. Jalan Malioboro is very tourist-oriented and the real local markets, which we saw by car the next day, are located a few streets over.

The primary reason for our visit to Jogja was to see Borobudur and Prambanan, two very famous temples. We went on a Friday to avoid weekend crowds and that actually worked out really well. Borobudur dates back to the ninth century and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s the largest Buddhist temple in the world and designed so that visitors follow the path of Buddhism from the base of the temple, symbolising the world of desire, up to the top of the temple, symbolising the Buddhist cosmology of forms and then of formlessness.

It was amazing to see how much had been reconstructed, as well as how much hadn’t. Indonesia experiences frequent earthquakes and their effects are present here as much as elsewhere.

Borobudur is about an hour and a half away from Jogja and our driver pointed out interesting spots along the way, told us about Indonesian farming, and answered our questions about life in Jogja and the rest of Indonesia. On our way back to the car my friend commented that it’s interesting how the best-known part of Borobudur, the stupas at the top, are hidden until you get there. I mused that this fit into the design of the temple – you have to do the hard work on the individual self before reaching that point of clarity.

Our next stop was Prambanan, Indonesia’s largest Hindu temple and also a UNESCO site. It’s about two hours from Borobudur and, just like the first temple, took us about two hours to explore. I was really glad we went because the two temples were completely different. The architecture was noticeably different, in keeping with the typical style of each religion, but so was the feel. There was a sense of mystery at Prambanan that I had not experienced at Borobudur.

Prambanan tells the story of the Hindu Ramayana epic and has temples dedicated to different Hindu deities, the most important of whom are Brahma (the Creator), Vishnu (the Protector), and Shiva (the Destroyer).

The ruins here were even more prominent than at Borobudur, too, due to significant damage from a 2006 earthquake.

The grounds around Prambanan are home to yet more Buddhist temples. We stopped to look at Lumbung . . .

. . . and Bubrah . . .

. . . and spent some time wandering around Sewu, which was definitely the coolest of the three. It was actively undergoing renovation, but empty other than us and the workers. It’s weird to wander a temple complex removed from crowds. Borobudur wasn’t busy but there were people around every corner. At Sewu, we were keenly aware of being alone and aware of the novelty of the experience.

The following day we visited Batik Winotosastro, an active batik workshop that also hosts batik classes for visitors. Our experience there was fantastic and I highly recommend a visit. A lovely woman introduced us to the workshop and set us right to work. We chose patterns to trace onto our cloth and then she moved us over to real batikers. We learned how to hold the dipper that contains the wax (I’ll be honest – I found this really difficult) and proceeded to trace the lines we’d just penciled. The batikers were working on additional layers of colour beyond the base layer and it was amazing to watch them and see how intricate, detailed, and precise their lines were. They prettied up our wax outlines while our guide showed us around the workshop.

Batik can be hand drawn or stamped, we learned. The stamps are copper and have been around a very long time, but the hand drawn batik are more expensive. When our batik were prettier than we’d left them, our guide took us over to the woman responsible for dyeing . . .

. . . and the man who boiled off the wax . . .

. . . and finally to the women with sewing machines who hemmed the edges to finish off.

It was a real pleasure to learn from such a knowledgeable person and to experience how an actual batik workshop operates. Watching a traditional process in action was a great learning experience and says a lot about Jogja’s desire to maintain its heritage. I am always glad to support places like that.

Our afternoon destination was a quick trip to the Water Castle, which is located on the grounds of the royal palace. The only section preserved today is the bathing complex where the sultan and his ladies would relax.

I really liked the neighbourhood around the Water Castle, too. It was bright and colourful, though very quiet. We noticed that people in Jogja tended to avoid the outdoors in the middle of the day, which is not what I have seen in other places with similar weather but definitely something that I understand.

For our last evening, we headed back down Jalan Malioboro to experience the night market. It was busy and crowded and still rather overwhelming but I’m really glad we went.

I was particularly taken by the street food stalls that opened up and attracted just about everybody.

And furthermore, we were in Indonesia. They take coffee very seriously here. Filter coffee from a street cart!

Before going to the airport the following day, we went back to the royal palace, the Kraton Ngayogyakarta Hadiningrat. The palace hosts cultural performances daily so we got to hear some Javanese music and see traditional dance.

The palace also has several museums explaining different traditions and rituals. There are a few artifacts on display throughout the complex, as well.

After another cup of coffee from Tanamera Coffee, a local roastery and café that we visited a couple of times, it was time to go. We had a lovely long weekend in Yogyakarta and I would definitely recommend it for lovers of history, art, and culture. Happy travels!

Travel Guide: Seoul and Around

My friend and I took a high-speed train from Busan to Seoul and immediately on arrival I noted the cooler weather and the need to don my trench coat, which was really exciting. I hadn’t been in real fall (or autumn, if you prefer) for a long time!

We were staying in Insadong in order to be at the centre of the action. The neighbourhood is a wonderful mix of contemporary art galleries and traditional crafts, restaurants, clothing stores, dessert cafés, and the Ssamzigil shopping mall that specialises in handicrafts. Food vendors line the streets alongside vendors of yet more crafts and souvenirs.

Insadong has a pretty robust night life, too.

An evening walk took us to Jogyesa Temple, which was celebrating its Chrysanthemum Festival. Jogyesa is the main temple of the Buddhist Jogya Order and, like many temples in Korea, hosts a templestay program in which visitors can spend a day or more at a temple to learn about Korea Buddhist practices and living. (If I have the opportunity to return to Korea, I’d be interested in taking part.) Not having expected anything like it, we were surprised and delighted to see the chrysanthemums in the dark.

The next day was possibly my favourite day of our nine days in Korea and definitely the most unique. We took the metro to the train to the ferry until we arrived at Nami Island, an island in the middle of North Han River. Nami Island considers itself a nation, the Naminara Republic, and has its own passport, stamp, and currency. All of these can only be used on island but the symbolism struck me. Unfortunately, the officials did not stamp our passports after we paid the visa fee before boarding the ferry.

We spent the day enjoying the fall colours; I didn’t realise how much I’d missed them until they were right in front of me. I also really enjoyed the trees, flowers, plants, and animals that we don’t have in Singapore. Nami Island is famous for its appearance in K-dramas, which I don’t know anything about, but I appreciated it as a charming escape from a big city.

Nami Island has a beautiful emphasis on, in its own words, imagination, fairy tales, and nature itself. It also hosts the Nami Concours to highlight and celebrate picture book illustrators. The island was filled with signs of how the Naminara Republic fashioned itself and I enjoyed it very much. Nami Island also has artists workshops, galleries, and souvenir shops, as well as art on display across the island. It was very pleasant to walk around, especially since the sun came out over the course of the day.

This is also the first time And of course, I enjoyed the ferry very much. (I do really miss working on boats.)

We organised our time in Seoul around day trips, so we spent every other day in or out of the city. After Nami Island we were due for an urban day. Accordingly, we spent the morning at Gyeongbokgung Palace, the main royal palace of the Joseon dynasty built in the late fourteenth century. Luckily, we arrived just in time for the changing of the guards!

Like much else, the palace was destroyed by the Japanese during the twentieth century occupation but had also been destroyed by fire in the 1500s. The palace is the size of a small city and covers about 410,000 square meters, which is only a fraction of its original size. Today, the grounds are open for visitors as are individual buildings and two museums.

Anyone wearing the traditional Korean hanbok entered the palace for free and we saw all kinds of people in traditional clothes. There were rental studios in every touristy area and it was refreshing to see men, women, and children of different nationalities and body types dressed up. I was initially very resistant (insert self-critical thoughts here) but we ultimately decided to do what everyone else was doing and I’m really glad we did. We returned to the palace two days later in our hanbok.

After our first visit to the palace, still deep in discussion about wearing the hanbok, we walked over to Bukchon Hanok Village, a collection of hilly streets with traditional houses. There were a few restored homes open to visitors as well as a handicrafts centre offering short sessions on different types of crafts.

Still steeped in tradition, we headed back to Insadong to experience a traditional teahouse. This one was built around a courtyard with a room of low tables and floor cushions and a second room of tables and chairs. Tea was served hot or iced with traditional Korean sweets. We chose dried persimmon stuffed with walnuts and Korean rice cakes, as well as iced balloon flower citrus tea and iced cinnamon tea. The presentation and flavours were different from any tea we’d had (and high tea is a common social activity in Singapore) and we thoroughly enjoyed it.

We spent the evening in Hongdae, a neighbourhood near Hongik University. As predicted, it was full of all the quirks of a university neighbourhood, including street art!

Hongdae’s shops were eclectic and fun, densely packed, and extremely popular. It’s very entertaining to see different trends and the lifestyle that goes along with them. In Korea, fashion and cosmetic trends are as popular for men as they are for women and there seems to be relatively little convention around fashion choices. Everyone clearly has a style, but the style itself comes from anywhere under the sun. Contact lenses are even sold like any other type of makeup – as an enhancement of what is already there.

There was a Halloween street party in Hongdae, too, and it was fun to watch the set up for that. It appears that Korea is just like it’s shown in the movies and people really do perform K-pop in the streets!

After a day in the city it was time to get out of Seoul again and take the train 30km south to Suwon. Seoul’s metro system is so sprawling that one train took us all the way there. Suwon is Korea’s last completely walled city and the primary reason to visit is to walk the 5.4km wall of the fortress. It was lovely to spend yet another day outside in cold wind and bright blue sky.

It was really neat to watch the skyline unfold as we climbed higher, too. Korea is a hilly country and the fortress rolled along with the land.

After a day in Suwon we had one final day in Seoul. As discussed and investigated, we rented our hanbok for ₩10,000 for two hours, which gave us plenty of time to return to Gyeongbokgung Palace to take photos. We’d worried about feeling silly and out of place for dressing up, but it quickly became clear that people from all over the world do this because it’s fun! As soon as we walked out of the rental shop a woman stopped us to chat about our experience in Korea. Later on, different people offered to take our photo. It was a lot of fun and a nice little confidence boost.

Just like our first day at the palace, we went back to Insadong for traditional tea, this time in a tea house that opened into a cozy room with plaster walls lined with benches, stools, and tables. Different teas and desserts and a similarly lovely experience.

In sharp contrast to traditional clothes, the palace, and Insadong, our next destination was Gangnam across the Han River, which runs through Seoul. We stopped first at the COEX library in a mall . . .

. . . and then walked through the business district until we reached Gangnam Square and all of the entertainment around it.

It was fun to experience traditional Seoul in the morning and modern, glittery Seoul in the evening. That was something I noticed throughout our trip – the infusion of traditional and modern culture everywhere we went. There was an ease to being in Korea that I hadn’t experienced before, a sense that being whoever you were was just fine and that we should treat others accordingly. The world could do with more of that.