Sunday, November 11, 2012

Tour de Switzerland

It's coming up nearly two years since I arrived in Switzerland. And it flies by pretty quickly. There's been quite a bit I've come to like about this country - in fact, you can see a list here - one of which I have no hesitation in saying is Switzerland's proximity to everywhere else in Europe. In fact, it was one of the first things I wrote about. Jump on a train three hours north-west and find yourself in Paris; three hours south-east you'll end up saying buongiorno in Milan; and two hours' flight will take you pretty much anywhere in Europe. 

But I haven't really seen much of Switzerland itself. Living in one of Europe's most beautiful countries - and one that has some of the continent's most recognisable icons - that's rather sad.  So, much as I will always be willing to jump on a plane or train and venture outside of Switzerland's borders, I've recently decided to turn that around and see what Switzerland has to offer. 

And what an offering. I had long wanted to see perhaps the most instantly recognisable mountain on Earth - the Matterhorn. However to make the trip worthwhile - it's a bit of schlep, taking two trains and nearly four hours from Nyon - it's best to pick a clear day. 

A mountain that needs no introduction
We had a long weekend in September with fine weather, so after making sure that the weather at the Matterhorn was fine and clear - thanks to the magic of webcams - we headed for Zermatt, the famous ski town at the base of the mountain. Although traditionally a ski resort town, more associated with powder snow and freezing temperatures, Zermatt in late summer nonetheless buzzes with tourists and, of course, hard core Swiss hikers. 

After arriving in Zermatt, we walked through the town in a state of anticipated excitement - where's the Matterhorn? We round a bend in one of the pedestrian-only streets of the village - and there it stood, in its majestic, iconic, postcard picture-like beauty. 

Taking a series of cable cars from the village, we head up for the mountains. I'd never been to the mountains above Zermatt at all, let alone in winter - though that's another goal for another day - but seeing it summer was a strange experience. The landscape in the high mountains, bare of snow, was almost moon-like - grey, rocky, devoid of vegetation. 

The Alps from the summit of the Klein Matterhorn
After taking a couple of cable cars up ever higher, we take the last one for the end of the line - the top of the Klein Matterhorn (Little Matterhorn). With the summit at nearly 4,000m above sea level, it's the highest point on land I've ever been. standing on the summit is an awesome experience; the Matterhorn itself so close you can almost touch it, with cloud billowing off the warm face of the Italian side of the Matterhorn. To its left, the high peaks of the Alps roll off as far as the eye can see. I'm halfway to heaven and it's an experience I'll never forget. 

Back down to earth, and a few days later we're heading for Bern, Switzerland's capital. Bern is a little like some of the world's other capitals; the seat of a country's power, it's famous for being the capital - and not much else. Comparisons with Washington DC and Canberra in Australia spring to mind. 

It's not my first visit to the Swiss capital - that was on a miserable Sunday in winter earlier last year, and was a bit of a disaster. Horrible, cold, wet weather, and - being a Sunday - nothing open and nothing to do. I wasn't in a hurry to go back, so when Emperor D suggested we visit Bern on a Saturday at the end of summer, I was surprised - but after hesitating, decided to give Bern another chance. 

The River Aare coasts past Bern
I'm glad I did. While it will never meet the verve (well, for Switzerland) of Zurich or even Geneva, it is a pleasant city that's lively enough on a Saturday afternoon in summer. The old part of the town is gorgeous, with cobblestone streets, and Swiss chocolate box architecture. The River Aare that circumnavigates it, is a brilliant ceylon sapphire blue, with a fast-running current. Even on a day that struggled to get out of the 20s in temperature, it looked inviting enough; on a hot day in high summer, I can only imagine how packed it must get. 

We ended the day by coming across a small, pop-up rock concert in a terraced park by the river, not far from the train station. We took in local acts - some good, some truly awful - belting out rock tunes with English lyrics on the top of a bus while enjoying a pint of beer or a glass of wine. It wasn't a side of Bern that I expected to see, but I was nonetheless glad to see it, since it made me realise that first impressions don't always last. 

Then, during October, with autumn in full swing, we headed for the UNESCO heritage-listed terraced vineyards of the Lavaux region, at the top of Lake Geneva. Lavaux is famous for its vineyards and the wines that it produced from their grapes; it’s supposed to be particularly beautiful in autumn as the vines change colour.

Terraced vineyards of Lavaux
A group of us headed for the tiny lakeside village of Lutry, just east of Lausanne. From there we took a tourist train through the Lavaux region – the best way to see them – where we could see the vines marching up the hills in glorious autumn shades of yellow, orange and red. At the end of the trip, back in Lutry, we headed back up into the Lavaux vineyards where we eventually found a couple of bottles of local wines (self-service; very trusting of the Swiss with alcohol involved!), some disposable wine glasses and, finding a picnic table, sat down and soaked up the late Sunday afternoon autumn sun, with a couple of glasses of wine and a great view of the lake and the Alps. Happy times.

Heading back down the hill to catch the train back was an interesting experience, especially after a couple of glasses of wine and feeling a little on the light-headed side. With us in danger of missing the train and the next one not another for half an hour, and with the road down being too far away and winding, we took a shortcut – through the vineyards themselves. They are terraced, so getting down wasn’t too bad, but it did make for an adventurous end to the day trying to find our way through the vineyards, and ending up in someone’s backyard. I’m sure that’s not the first time that’s happened to them.

I’m glad I’ve got out and seen more of the country. I’ve been to Zurich as well in the last couple of weeks, but there’s still so much more to see. So, when in Switzerland, go and see her – she’s got a lot to offer.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

I feel the need... the need for cheese

For me, the holy grail of cheese in Switzerland
I'll admit that, in the nearly 18 months since I've been in Switzerland, there's been very little - apart from the obvious things; friends, family - that I miss about home.
I think in there lies the key word for what I do miss - the little things. Just recently, I've realised that there's lots of little things from back home that I took for granted. Mostly, it's food. Some food habits from home have been hard to break.
What's more unusual though is that I haven't even realised I've missed something until I've come into accidental contact with it, and then discovered I can't find it again.
Cheddar cheese is the perfect example of the above situation. Yes, you can buy what the Swiss think is cheddar cheese. But it's greasy, goes sweaty and doesn't have that delicious, tangy cheddar taste. However, on a recent visit to London, where I was staying with friends, I was reintroduced to the pleasure of a good, sharp-tasting mature cheddar cheese.
I had to have more.
Then I returned to Switzerland where I hadn't really found cheddar cheese in my previous half-hearted attempts of looking. Then I heard rumours that you could actually buy proper cheddar cheese - Cathedral City Mature Cheddar, to be exact, the same I had in London - at some supermarkets in Switzerland.
But where? The rumour was you could buy it in areas where there was a large expat community. It's a bit strange then that I couldn't find any in Nyon, where half the population seems to be British, let alone expat.
But like the Calvinist reformers, Geneva proved to be my salvation city. There, in a big Migros a few tram stops from Geneva's main train station, was a small part of the top cheese shelf dedicated to Cathedral City Mature Cheddar Cheese. I bought two. And the taste? Sharp, tangy goodness. I can't wait to try some with creamy mashed potato, a guilty pleasure introduced to me by my grandmother.

In the meantime, it turns out that Nyon does have a sufficiently large enough expat community to warrant my local Migros stocking Cathedral City Cheddar as well. Why did I not notice it before? Not sure if it's a case of it not being there before or that I just never really looked for it.
So while some of the little things I miss have happy endings, maybe it's too much to ask that I can have everything I want. Because one day, all the little things will add up with the big things and it'll turn into a desire to go home. But not just yet.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012


This is a post I've been meaning to write for a long time, but now I've been compelled to. Long before I moved to Switzerland, I knew it was an expensive place. Perth, where I'm from, is also pretty expensive; in fact, it lies just outside the top 10 of the world's most expensive cities. (Geneva is ranked 3rd.) So when I first moved, I didn't really notice too much of a difference.

But gradually, you do notice things. Rent for my nice, but very small, apartment is 30% of my decent salary. Public transport is pretty efficient and reliable - most of the time - but it comes at a price.

Meat - which I've discussed before on my Empress Eats blog - is also outrageously expensive. So expensive in fact, that people who live within 50 kilometres of a border will travel into France, Germany or Italy to stock up on it - and try not to get caught by Swiss customs on the way home to avoid paying the tax on it. People closer to the borders will regularly do their grocery shopping over the border as well, saving as much as 40%. I found it amusing when I read an article recently saying the major Swiss grocery chains are going to start closing stores because people are going elsewhere.

Travel abroad and you start to notice it even more. I've been to London a few times now and regularly stock up on goods at often half the price. Last weekend, I bought a pair of Doc Marten shoes in Paris for CHF 50 cheaper than I could in Switzerland. 

Better off buying Esprit in the US
The US is where you really notice the difference. Last year I went to New York on a bit of a shopping spree. Walking into Esprit, the vast price difference is there in black and white. The price tag has the prices of the same garment in different countries. Price of a shirt in the US - US$29.50. Price in Switzerland - CHF 49.90. So what, you say - they're different currencies. True - until you covert the price in Swiss francs to US dollars and realise that the same garment in Switzerland costs US$55.

So what compelled me to write now on a topic that's been bothering me for months? Health insurance. Private health insurance in Switzerland - unlike in Australia, where it's considered ideal to have - is obligatory. You don't have health insurance in Switzerland and you're in big trouble.

Thing is, health insurance here is expensive - really expensive. At home, we paid just over $100 a month for top level cover. It coved everything. Here, we pay four times as much for virtually no coverage at all. Our current premium is CHF 425 per month (roughly the same equivalent in Aus $). Late last year, I went to an ordinary doctor for a 15 minute appointment that wasn't covered under my insurance plan and received a bill in the mail three weeks later for over CHF 200. A month ago, I badly cut my finger and ended up seeing a doctor three times, including having stitches put in, and then later removed. I haven't received that bill yet and I think I'll need to make sure I'm lying down when I get it.

So I was apoplectic with rage when I opened a letter from my health insurer yesterday saying our premium is going up to CHF 836 per month, nearly double. Double! At least I can change insurers, but the reality is that I will still need to pay four times the price for one tenth of the coverage I get back home.

I understand that Switzerland is expensive. Salaries compensate for it. Or maybe it's a chicken and the egg thing; maybe prices are expensive because everyone is paid well and tax is low so there needs to be at least one catch.

Whatever it is, I've learnt over the last year to not get too caught up in the price of things here. I no longer compare things to prices back home. And I now automatically look outside of Switzerland for goods that I know will be expensive here.

Maybe Switzerland needs to take a look at itself and ask whether charging such exorbitant prices is justified. Either that, or legally change the country's name to $witzerland. At least that would serve a warning to people.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Baby, it’s cold outside

So today was a beautiful, sunny Sunday afternoon. Only it was -6oC (21oF for you folks on the imperial system). That’s pretty cold. Freezing in fact. And it’s been that way – and worse – for the last week and will continue in this vein for at least this week. Thursday and Friday were the worst days, with temps around -8oC, but with fierce 40 – 50km/h winds straight from Siberia, the windchill made it feel it was more like -20oC. It’s even colder in Ukraine, where over 100 people have been killed from exposure to temps as low as -30oC (that’s -22oF!).

Nice day for a walk?
These are the coldest temperatures I’ve ever experienced. It’s freezing! The wind blowing on my face feels like tiny little knives making tiny little paper cuts on my skin. It’s somewhat of a novelty – which is why we went for a walk this afternoon. But we weren’t the only ones. The Swiss love a walk in fine, sunny weather. And it seems sub-zero temps are no deterrent. Unfortunately, my phone that I had taken some photos on doesn’t seem to like very cold weather and seized up, otherwise there would be a photo here of the boulevard by the lake in Nyon, full with people and families strolling along.

It hasn’t been just cold – the snow has been falling too, much more than last winter. That, too, still holds novelty value for me; I still give a small squeal, to the amusement of my work colleagues, whenever snow starts falling. The streets of Geneva were blanketed with snow during the week, making walking to work in snow boots or Wellington boots necessary to get through all the slush.

Geneva a winter wonderland
Once it stops snowing though and the sky clears, the scene is breathtaking, with everything, including the trees, turned white. Very pretty. Winter in Switzerland is not quite over yet, but it’s been fascinating.

P.S - Oops. It has been awhile since my last blog. Well, merry Christmas and happy New Year! Christmas in Switzerland really deserved its own blog, but with my parents over, I didn’t have the time. This Christmas I’ll try to write one. It’s also been just over a year now since I arrived and I’m conscious that I need to write a post on a full year of life in Switzerland. I’m still full of ideas for blogs, but life catches up sometimes and doesn’t leave me much time for writing. I promise I’ll blog more this year.