Category Archives: Switzerland

Zurich: a great city, rain or shine

Thursday 17th – Sunday 20th September
Zurich, Switzerland

We have a theory that it’s sometimes just good or bad fortune whether you fall in love with a city. Beautiful sunshine or a fantastic meal and your memories are positive. Too much wind and rain and you perhaps miss your chance to see a city at its best. 

Zurich was grey and rainy when we arrived on Thursday, after a 45 minute train ride from Lucerne. But there was nothing the weather could do to dampen our love for this city. And by our final day on Saturday the sun was shining, so we could see Zurich at its best. 

It’s easy to walk for miles in the centre of the city, with each turn offering another great view, interesting narrow street, or fascinating-looking shop. And our achy legs are confirmation that we covered a lot of ground in our three days there!

[Views of the city, below: view from Lindenhof; view of St Peter’s Church; Zurich Opera House; view of Zurichsee from Burliplatz; us enjoying the view from Lindenhof]

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Macau Orchestra, Tonhalle Zurich
We decided to enjoy some of Zurich’s culture on Friday night. There seems to be a lot on offer, and the city is currently getting ready to host the Zurich Film Festival, which starts in a couple of days’ time. We got tickets for a concert at the Tonhalle Zurich. The Tonhalle is widely considered to have excellent acoustics, and was inaugurated in 1895 by Johannes Brahms. 

The performance was by the Macao Orchestra (on a European tour from China) with a Swiss soloist called Lionel Cottet on the cello. We heard ‘Dance of the Yao Tribe’, by Mao Yuan and Liu Tieshan (see below), Saint-Saens’ Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor and Bruckner’s Symphony No. 6 in A major. It was great to experience a full orchestra in such a beautiful concert hall. We topped the evening off with cocktails at a great bar close to our hotel.

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Kreis 5, Zurich
On Saturday we decided to explore a different side of the city. Kreis 5, a short distance from the city centre, used to be the industrial area, but in the past few years has reinvented itself as a neighbourhood of funky shops and creative businesses. We particularly liked Viaducktstrasse, with great shops and a fantastic food market hidden under a railway viaduct.

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Music of the day
This is a recording of ‘Dance of the Yao Tribe’, by Mao Yuan and Liu Tieshan, which opened the concert we attended at the Tonhalle.

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Dragons and Lions in Lucerne

Monday 14th – Thursday 17th September
Lugano to Lucerne, Switzerland

Train journey Lugano to Lucerne
The train journey from Lugano to Lucerne on Monday took us through the Alps. Often we read or work on our blog during long train journeys, but on this occasion we both decided to listen to podcasts on our headphones instead, so that we could watch the views passing by the windows. We enjoyed some amazing sights, including some incredible waterfalls caused by the large amount of rain that we had experienced while in Lugano.

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Mount Pilatus, Lucerne, Switzerland
When we were planning our trip to Switzerland one of the days out that interested us, and led to us choosing Lucerne as a destination, was “The Golden Route” up Mount Pilatus. Tuesday looked like it might be clear enough to enjoy some views from the top.

The journey began with a boat trip on Lake Lucerne, known in Swiss as the Vierwaldstättersee, the Four Forested Cantons Lake, after the original “cantons” (or states) that joined together in the Middle Ages to found Switzerland.

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Next we boarded the world’s steepest cog-wheel railway, to climb to the summit of Mount Pilatus, at over 2,000 metres above sea level. Although the track does not look too steep in the picture below, some sections are at a 48%, or close to a 1 in 2, incline (for those who know our street in Gateshead, the section downhill from our house is a 1 in 10 incline, which certainly feels steep enough when we try to walk – or cycle! – up it!). The railway here is over 125 years old, and was originally steam-operated, although it is powered by electricity these days. It also gave us brief glimpses of the lakes below.

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Initially when we reached the top we emerged into a world of clouds. But within an hour or so (during which we grabbed some lunch at one of the two hotels(!) at the summit) the weather had cleared, providing us with some fantastic views.

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We then travelled back down via two cable cars, including the modern “Dragon Ride” pictured below. As an added bonus, we could actually see the building housing the apartment that we stayed in during our time in Lucerne – it is one of the two tower blocks close to the football stadium about three quarters of the way up the right hand side of this photo.

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Walking tour, Lucerne, Switzerland
Lucerne is a very beautiful and historic city, and we were keen to learn more about it, so we took a walking tour on Wednesday morning. The guide was very knowledgable and engaging, and we enjoyed hearing about how the city originally became rich due to its location on the main trade route between Germany and Italy (allowing it to charge tax on the goods that passed through). Later, the source of its wealth switched to tourism, particularly visitors from Britain in the early days. This remains the case, although today they get visitors from across the world.

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We were also interested to hear about the modern culture and congress centre that was built in the 1990s, designed by the French architect Jean Nouvel. It houses a concert hall and other exhibition spaces.

Nouvel’s original vision was to place the building on an island in the middle of the lake, but this plan was rejected by the people of Lucerne in a referendum. (On this occasion, the vote took place at a local level, but even on the national stage Switzerland has direct democracy, meaning that any law or decision can be challenged by members of the public and, if enough people join the petition, a referendum will be called.)

Having been foiled by public opinion, Nouvel therefore decided to incorporate the lake into his design in another way, with pools both outside and inside the centre. Our guide told us that the pools are usually fenced off to prevent people falling into the water (which has apparently happened on several occasions) but Nouvel does not approve of the fencing, so the city removes it whenever it knows that he is coming to visit, and then replaces it once he is safely out of town!

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In the afternoon we also visited the Lion Monument, by Lukas Ahorn. Carved into a rock face and sitting ten metres long, it commemorates the Swiss soldiers who died during the French Revolution, while defending King Louis XVI (although Switzerland has been neutral for many centuries, that hasn’t stopped it providing mercenary soldiers to other countries, a tradition that continues to this day with the Swiss Guard who protect the Pope at the Vatican). The “dying lion” was a draw for tourists in the 19th Century and continues to be popular with visitors to this day. A lot may have changed in that time, but Lucerne remains a beautiful and fascinating city to explore.

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Linguistic challenge of the day
Although I speak (and understand) some German, it soon became clear to me that this would not be sufficient to allow me to catch all of what is going on in Switzerland. Although Lucerne is in the majority “German-speaking” section of the country, the mother tongue of the locals is actually Swiss German, which is very different. I am not certain whether it is a dialect of German or a separate language, as some of the basic words (such as “und” and “aber”) sound similar, but others (incuding “hello”, “goodbye” and the numbers) are very different. The accent is also very dissimilar to German, being somewhat “sing-song”, like the Swedish chef from The Muppet Show!

After reading a little about the language situation in Switzerland online, I was reassured to learn that Swiss Germans also speak Standard German, as all of their lessons are conducted in that language throughout school and almost all written communication (with the exception of short text messages, etc) tends to take place in Standard German. Therefore, I have been able to communicate pretty well while we have been here (certainly helped by the fact that most people seem to also speak excellent English), although I still find it odd to be greeted with “Grüezzi” rather than “Gutentag”, and to hear people saying “Merci” rather than “Danke schön”!

Lugano: Switzerland, Italian-style

Thursday 10th – Monday 14th September
Lugano, Switzerland

Just an hour’s train ride north of Milan and we found ourselves in Switzerland. The beautiful city of Lugano sits on Lake Lugano, which is partly in Italy and partly in Switzerland. And despite being on the Swiss side of the border, the feel in Lugano is still very much Italian, from the language to the food.

Lugano is an enjoyable mix of business and pleasure. The lakefront is absolutely beautiful. On arrival we soon found ourselves looking out at the view that tourists have loved for decades. The Civic Park, just a short walk from the city centre, is a particularly great spot to enjoy everything the lake has to offer.

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At the same time, Lugano is Switzerland’s third biggest banking centre. The designer shops and incredible array of expensive cars on the streets suggest a very wealthy, working city. And the age of some of the bank buildings we saw suggests this is nothing new.

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Friday 11th September – birthday celebrations
For us, the main event in Lugano was 11th September – my 40th! Thanks to my sister Claire and her family, I even had a special T-shirt to mark the day!

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We decided to spend some of the day taking two funicular railways to the summit of Monte Bre, which gives stunning views across the lake.

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In the evening, we found a great restaurant for some excellent pizzas and a very nice glass of Swiss wine.

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We had a restful few days in Lugano, and the fantastic food and drink made it a great place to celebrate my birthday. We have also been enjoying learning about the history of this fascinating country. The country has four official languages (Italian, German, French and Romansch) and is clearly influenced by its neighbours. But it has existed as an independent nation since 1291.

Its politics are also unique. Its neutrality has been in place for hundreds of years, and formally recognised since 1815. This has led to the country being an important international base for a range of organisations from the World Health Organisation to the UN. We can’t wait to see some of the other dimensions of the country.

Car of the day
At first glance, I thought this car in the car park of our hotel was a Smart Car. It was certainly about the right size and shape. Then I noticed the Aston Martin badge! The leather interior wasn’t too shabby either. Not sure it’ll be the next Bond car though!

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