The primary impetus for our Swiss holiday was to be outside and enjoy alpine vistas.
Last year, we enjoyed a one-night stop in Chamonix, in the French Alps. We spent quite a few hours high above the village, gazing at peaks and glaciers, including Mt Blanc, the European Union’s tallest. But this time, above St. Moritz, Grindelwald and Zermatt, we really felt the immensity of the Alps. Especially from Piz Nair, we could see layer after layer of jagged snowy peaks, perhaps as far as Zermatt, 170 km / 105 mi away. At Chamonix, the mountains seemed like majestic objects. In Switzerland, we felt like we were IN the Alps.
We also really enjoy traveling by train. There is such pleasure riding along in a spacious train car, letting the landscape and views slide by. No driving. No big rush. No email. (OK, not much.)
The trains were as punctual and reliable as their reputation claims. In France, we have been trained to be skeptical about our train reservations, and to maintain contingency plans. Often there are sudden strikes. Recently, the strikes have aimed to protest anticipated changes in retirement rules, and perceived understaffing among engineers and conductors. In the region where we live, in Occitanie, in mid October, we had a day of heavy downpours. Some of the railway foundations were washed away. A key line between Narbonne and Montpellier (essential for trains from our area to Paris, Marseille, Lyon and much of Europe) will be unusable until early December at the earliest. In Switzerland, in contrast, all the trains departed and arrived as precisely as scheduled. We didn’t need to “look over our shoulders” in anticipation of a cancelled train.
Dear friends of ours had enjoyed almost the exact train circuit as we about six months before us. They had a great time and loved the alpine scenery. But they warned us that everything was really expensive. Probably in denial, we didn’t focus too much on their reports. But they were so right! At least related to food and wine. (Thankfully, hotel prices were normal for what we’ve experienced in other places in Europe.) But truly staggering menu prices. The cost of an unremarkable meal was always about twice what we’d pay in Toulouse or Lyon.
And the wine! Now, we are spoiled in Occitanie. The huge range of very good wine from this region typically comes with very affordable price tags. But even compared to prices in French big-city restaurants, the wine was really expensive. Prices for a bottle started around 60€. That’s crazy.
Was it good wine? The answer is so subjective, of course. We tried Swiss wines from the Vaud (along the north shore of Lake Geneva) and Valais regions, mostly pinot noir and gamay grapes. These wines were pleasant, light, and hardly memorable, alas; at least for us. We did find a nebbiolo-based wine from the Inferno sub-region of the Ticino region, which is the Italian part of Switzerland; we really enjoyed this red wine’s aromas and tastes. We ordered it both times we ate at that restaurant.
Now, about the food! October is hunting season. In most restaurants, the menu had an insert that highlighted the season’s offerings of venison (deer or chamois, which is an antelope) and wild boar. Not meats that we typically get to experience; carnivores that we are, we were enthusiastic. Our first main dinner plate included:
- Spätzli: buttery dumplings, often fried.
- Rotkohl: soft and sweet red cabbage with stewed apples and bacon.
- Rosenkohl: Brussels sprouts, cooked until tender.
- Birnen mit Preiselbeeren: poached pears filled with cranberry sauce.
- Glasierte Marroni: glazed, caramelly chestnuts.
And that’s what our second dinner included. And our third, fourth, fifth….
Thanks to Helvetic Kitchen for this spot-on list of the typical game-based meal, and the great photo.
Impertinently, at home, we have come to complain about the same-old same-old French menu offerings, and the lack of spicy and international options. Of course, we can’t really complain: we have French food all around us. But at the same time, it is hard to find good food even from other countries in Europe, much less Asia and America. Poor us! But, after the Swiss plates, we complain much less in France!
In France, one can speak French as a native, or one is not French; one is foreign. Don’t get me wrong: For the most part, French people are gracious, warm, helpful, and kind. But, no matter how good our French gets, we will always be “the Americans.” Which, actually, fascinates almost all the French whom we’ve met.
What a difference in Switzerland. As you probably know, Switzerland has four official languages: German, French, Italian and Romansh (a Romance language). And perhaps unofficially, English. Curiously, on our various train trips, announcements in the trains would be in two of the Swiss languages and English; but seldom the same combination of Swiss languages. Someone must always feel left out.
What struck us everywhere we went in Switzerland when we needed to talk with a local person was this: The first gesture of the Swiss person was designed to determine which language we spoke. Immediately after that, the conversation proceeded effortlessly in the appropriate language, which was English for us. In the German regions, like Lucerne, St. Moritz and Zermatt, people preferred English over French. One of our fellow train travelers, a Swiss man, said that among the Swiss government ministers and politicians, many have to speak English because they don’t necessarily speak all four of the Swiss official languages.
Being an English (or even French) speaker in Switzerland felt different from our typical time in France. In France, we try the best we can to communicate in French. In Switzerland, all that our Swiss conversation partners wanted to know was which language to use; purely pragmatic. No judgment. Oh, to be able to speak four or five languages natively!