If it's Tuesday, it must be Zürich!

Trip Start Jan 20, 2004
Trip End Ongoing

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Thursday, August 11, 2005

Cheese and chocolate, army knives and cow bells, punctuality and politeness. Yes, where else could we be but Switzerland! As we flew in over the picture-perfect hills, woods and farmland surrounding Zürich, we could already see what a trim and orderly little country this is nestled in the heart of Europe. Still fiercely independent, it has retained a truly democratic political system built on referendum votes and significant local powers at the Canton level. By managing to maintain their neutrality since the early 19th century (including WWII), and only finally deciding to join the UN in 2002, the Swiss have capped it all by continuing to demonstrate their 'people-power' by resisting entry into the EU - at least for the moment!

But we're not here to discuss the finer points of Swiss politics - or, for that matter, to really explore Switzerland in any great detail - just a short stay as a special treat to visit good friends and family. From the moment we were picked up at the airport by our young friends Adrian and Tanja we were treated like royalty. Every morning the breakfast table groaned under a lavish spread of multi-flavoured yogurts, a wide selection of cold cuts and Swiss cheeses, fresh fruit and juices, bread and croissants still warm from the bakery and each evening we sampled Helvetic specialities such as fondue and rösti. When we weren't recalling memories of shipping our vans together across the Darien Gap, the amazing cruise to Antarctica and a few idyllic days in Chaitén last February, we were watching slides of the rest of their two-year awesome adventure exploring the Americas from tip to toe.

Trips out from Adi and Tanja's cozy apartment in Winterthur included visits to the Rhine Falls - considered to be the largest waterfall in Europe - and the beautiful medieval town of Schaffhausen, close to the northern border with Germany. The cobblestoned streets meandered through squares boasting myriad ornamental fountains and statues framed by beautifully-maintained facades, while the views from the strategically placed Munot fortress were steeped in lichen-covered tile roofs and distant towers and steeples. Another highlight was a visit to the ancient town of St Gallen - apparently founded in the 7th century by an itinerant Irish monk with some help from a passing bear! They both must have been extraordinarily literate as the Benedictine Abbey Library, locally known as the 'Stiftsbibliothek', was a sight to behold. The ornate shelves housing the wealth of rare tomes and manuscripts and the ceiling murals were well worth a few photos, but unfortunately the ban on snaps was strictly enforced by the stern custodian. Even a shot of the felt slippers - lined up outside for patrons to use to protect the stunningly beautiful inlaid wooden floors - earned a severe reprimand!

If your mental picture of Switzerland is of Heidi, Brown Swiss cows with obligatory cowbells, yodelling and immaculately tended mountain pastures, then a visit to the pretty village of Appenzell would definitely be in order. Set in the verdant pastures of north-eastern Switzerland near the border with Austria, the wooden farmhouses with colourfully overflowing window boxes provoked an almost continuous chorus of "oohs and aahs"from the back seat. Wandering the streets of the village was a treat for all the senses - floral masterpieces complementing the traditionally painted house facades - to the unfortunate extent that it now seems to have gone somewhat overboard in attracting legions of tourists - including us, of course!

Our royal treatment continued during the two days that we spent with our niece Helen and her husband Alan - both in terms of culinary treats and warm hospitality. They took us on an extensive guided tour of the nooks and crannies of Zürich, and we explored the old town alongside the Limmat River. Climbing the 267 steps of one of the towers of the Grossmünster we were treated to a magnificent panoramic view across the city beyond the nearby St Peterskirche which flaunts the largest clock face in Europe. Another famous landmark is the 13th century Fraumünster church, renowned for its beautiful stained glass windows as well as the three founding martyrs who miraculously managed to carry their own heads across the river after being beheaded! In the newer part of the city we were introduced to many of the 621 larger-than-life colourful teddies who have invaded the city this summer, and luckily managed to avoid being run-over by the ubiquitous blue and white trams.

An afternoon walk along the Planetary Way rewarded us with panoramic views overlooking Lake Zürich and the city spread out far below us, as well as a briefing on the intricacies of the solar system set up to scale along the pathway. After a leisurely stop for liquid sustenance we tackled the Observation Tower to get an even better view of the surrounding countryside - 273 steps up the angular structure until we felt we were swaying in the breeze. Our evenings with Helen and Alan provided the opportunity for some interesting discussions on family dynamics......but now that all your summer visitors have been and gone, Helen, there is no excuse not to slay your dissertation dragon in one foul swoop!!

Our penultimate day we spent back with Adi and Tanja on a marathon trip driving south until we were almost at the Italian border. On the way down we wandered the shore of the Wierwaldstättersee while Adi regaled us with tales of the legendary William Tell, and the early days of the newly formed Confederation Helvetica (finally we know why the Swiss country symbol is CH!) and their 13th century struggles against the nasty Habsburgs. Once through the claustrophobic 16 km tunnel deep under the St Gotthard Massif (believe it or not, two more tunnels are under construction in other areas that will be more than double this length) we found ourselves in the decidedly more rugged terrain of the Italian area of Switzerland and enjoyed the day exploring areas that Heidi never even mentioned. Stops included the Valle Verzasca with its dam made famous in a James Bond movie, and the gorgeously rustic village of Lavertezza. A late lunch of delicious risotto overlooking the lake in Magadino, and then the high road back over the passes to Lucerne. The day ended with a stroll around the medieval centre of this beautiful city, and of course across the photogenic covered bridge, the Kapellbrücke, which was nearly destroyed by a disastrous 1993 fire. This was an amazing day that just gave us a sampling of the variety that Switzerland has to offer and made us vow to return for a longer visit in the not too distant future!

Our final morning saw us wandering the quiet centre of historic Winterthur and visiting a hilltop park that gave good views over the town in a series of adjacent valleys below. Finally we were on the way back to the airport, reluctantly bidding farewell to our good friends yet again. Don't worry, we'll be back!

As we boarded our flight we were informed that British Airways would be unable to serve refreshments on the trip back to London due to a strike by their caterers, but we were luckily oblivious to the other problem that would confront us on our arrival at Heathrow. As the old saying goes, "ignorance is bliss"!!
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