Tag Archives: nature

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: 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.

Travel Guide: Busan and Around

I didn’t know what to expect when we decided to travel to Korea for October break. Many of my colleagues started their overseas teaching careers in Korea and everyone spoke highly of it, but visiting a place is obviously different from living there. The only thing I knew for sure was that it would be fall. I hadn’t seen leaves change in a long time and I was really looking forward to it.

We organised our trip based on where we could get direct flights; from Singapore, we could fly directly to Busan and from Seoul. The opposite option, interestingly, did not exist.

We landed in Busan first thing in the morning and the fact that I lost all of my photos from the first day of our trip (no joke, I managed to recover none at all) is actually fitting considering how discombobulated I felt that day. We revived ourselves a bit with coffee before heading to Haedong Yonggungsa, a Buddhist temple famous because it’s built on cliffs overlooking the sea. I loved hearing and smelling the sea, exploring the stone cracks and crevices, and looking at the food stalls on the path leading to the temple.

Busan is located on the southeastern coast of the Korean peninsula and that means it has a beach! Several, in fact. We spent some time that afternoon walking along Gwangalli Beach and enjoyed how quiet it was. October isn’t beach weather and this was a Monday afternoon, but there were lovely art installations and displays of children’s art. It felt really good to walk along the sand and even touch the water, which was about the same temperature as the air. Pleasant enough but jeans and a jacket were required. And again, we smelled the sea. It smelled alive in a way that I forget exists when living in the middle of a city.

Everyone we spoke to promised that public transportation in Korea was cheap and easy to use, a promise that we tested on our first bus ride from the beach to the hotel. Not only are stops listed in English most of the time, but you can pay in cash on all buses and the metro. Alternatively, you can use a Tcard and reload it with money at any metro station. Easy indeed!

Korea has a lot of parks and nature and before dinner we walked over to Yongdusan Park, the home of Busan Tower. The real attraction, however, was getting there. We took a series of themed escalators from street level up a hill and at the top was the park! Each level of escalator was a different colour or played music or was decorated with lights and moving images, which was highly entertaining.

We also spent some time that evening wandering through Gukje Market and BIFF Square. The market was a lot of fun because it backed right into high-end restaurants and designer shops, and the food sections of the market existed on the same roads as non-food shops. Picture pancakes frying in the middle of the street in front of a shop selling scarves and then imagine the smells of oil and wool. Put a smile on your face and that’s where I was. BIFF Square, built for the Busan International Film Festival, had its own collection of food and souvenir vendors and even fortune tellers!

The next day we headed out of Busan to Gyeongju, the capital of the former Silla dynasty. The bus ride was really pretty and took us past rolling hills and small cities. We were there to see the burial mounds of Silla kings, most of which are contained in one park area but some are dotted through the town. (And now I have photos, yay!)

Turns out there’s a method to keeping the grass level, too!

I was also really taken by the fruit trees.

We were able to go inside Cheonmachong, an excavated mound named for the white horse motif painted on the outside. The mounds are built initially as platforms and then hollowed out at the top, which is a pretty cool feat of engineering.

The town of Gyeongju itself was pretty, too, with restaurants, cafés, and lots of little shops. This is also the first place we encountered the emphasis on Instagram – cafés were literally designed for this purpose and advertised as such!

The other reason to visit Gyeongju was to get to Bulguksa Temple, which meant another bus ride through a landscape of hills, trees, and flowers. Korea is home to birds I’ve never seen before, either, and it was a really nice to experience so much of the land around us. Bulguksa was built in the eighth century and, like most of Korea, was destroyed during the wars and has since been restored. The colours were remarkable and we got very lucky with the blue sky, late afternoon sun, and autumn leaves beginning to change.

We returned to Gyongju for dinner and found more street art, which is always a highlight for me.

We spent our last full day in Busan at Gamcheon Cultural Village, which I’d really been looking forward to. We spent hours wandering through the twisty alleys and streets, browsing souvenirs and handcrafts, and pointing out the large variety of snacks available for purchase.

Gamcheon Cultural Village is still home to many artists and other residents and I really couldn’t shake the feeling that we were dancing on people’s heads the whole time we were there. It was first built in the 1920s and 30s and the restoration and community building that is still prevalent there was really impressive.

There was art everywhere and we were completely immersed in it.

On the walls . . .

. . . and on the stairs . . .

. . . and installations everywhere you looked.

I particularly loved the book staircase . . .

. . . and the Peace Museum. A man came by with markers for us to add messages, so of course we did so.

Gamcheon also had a local market because, as I said, people live there! The market was one of our last stops so it was mostly closed for the day but I was delighted to be there.

Since we visited a beach on our first day in Busan, we thought it fitting to also visit a beach on our last day. We took a really nice bus ride to Haeundae Beach, which, I learned, has the record for the most umbrellas on a beach at one time. (Note: This fact came from my travel friend and has not been independently verified.) We reached the beach at sunset and watched the sky change.

It was a rather poetic way to conclude the first chapter of our trip to Korea and left me with bright thoughts for chapter two: Seoul! Stay tuned!