My bike spent time in the shop this week, which meant I walked to work. At first I was annoyed, because of course there were things I’d planned to do on that first surprising morning and I wanted to get to work early to do them. I took a moment to be frustrated and then, because there was no other option, pulled myself out of my head and into the day.
This is when I noticed the sky changing. The gray was no longer steely and imposing, but softer, gentler. The light not hours away, but minutes. People riding without bike lights were suddenly less foolish and more visible. Morning was not long in coming, but rather already here.
Just over a year ago, when I first knew I was moving to Germany, I received photos of snow from the colleague I replaced. This was atypical, I was told, and I have since learned that snow like that, snow like the snow I grew up with, only happens every ten years or so.
When I was a child, we waited impatiently for snow days that never came, no matter how many spoons were carefully placed under pillows or pajamas worn inside out. Rochester, New York gets a lot of snow, or at least it used to, and we lived with it. The climate has certainly changed, but my parents’ photos of snow still look like I remember it. Lake effect, they say on the news, as though the type of snow makes any difference to children playing. I only remember one time when a snowball thrown contained more ice than snow and a neighbourhood boy went home crying; I’m sure that happened more than one time.
I remember climbing on the piles of shovelled snow to see the white, white world from a point higher than the lamppost in our yard. I remember the time my dad left his car at the top of the hill behind our house and hiked down, snow up to his waist. I used to keep sandbags in the trunk of my car so that I could drive through the hills leading to our neighbourhood, though sometimes I took the long way to avoid the sharpest right. There was always the danger of missing it. Cycling up that hill in the summer was no one’s idea of fun, so we never did. From the top, there was first a red barn and then fields and then sky.
Two weekends ago, a group of friends headed south into the Thüringer Wald to go for a walk in the snow. There’s usually snow there, I’m told, though it rained there this winter, too.
We greeted cross-country skiers and children sledding and kept the dog away from other dogs. We climbed the tower and were forced back down by the wind, tossed two tiny frisbees, ate delicious muffins and other snacks pulled from backpacks. The boys had a snowball fight and I played photographer as the group built two snowmen. We played in the snow because that’s what snow is for.
The sky was right there through the trees.
The house I grew up in was at the top of one hill and the bottom of a smaller hill, but a hill all the same. The cul-de-sac gave us a snow mountain that grew gradually larger each time the plows came around. As children, we named it after our street and friends from outside the neighbourhood would come over to play in the snow. Building a fort using recycling boxes was always harder than we thought it would be. My siblings and I used to dress our snowmen in Hawaiian shirts from our dress-up box; Mum always gave us a carrot for the nose.
You could see the world from the top of that hill. You could look out across neighbourhoods, across trees, and watch the leaves and the sky change. The atmosphere was peaceful well before I knew the world. Rochester is a cloudy place, a place where, on the rare sunny days, people suddenly come out of their shells. You see smiles where there were previously faces hidden in scarves or behind hoods of raincoats. People greet one another more warmly and the general mood is one of optimism and joy. I have never in my life known people so happy to see the sun.
I forgot that feeling, and then I left the equator and came to another place that is cloudy, a place where I have recently felt the sky change. In Singapore, my apartment looked out over a highway and then the towns to the north. When the sky took over the buildings in the distance, rain was coming. Sky in the tropics changes in a flash, in a second, and if you don’t look now, it’ll be different in a breath. Hours could pass watching it.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Photos, travels, musings, and ideas on education by someone trying to make the world a better and more peaceful place