Sunday, July 1, 2012

Summer in Switzerland

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By Marcia Biggs

The Getaway Girl was recently invited back to visit her favorite European country --  Switzerland! This is my fourth visit to a place that reminds me of a National Geographic calendar at every turn.  


In past visits, I have hiked and biked and skied the mountains and valleys.  I have soaked in hot springs and sipped wine at the vineyards and soared in a hot air balloon.  And still, the prospect of returning to Switzerland set my heart aflutter.


 The impetus for my journey this time was the introduction of non-stop flights from Tampa International Airport to Zurich on Edelweiss Airlines.  My group of travel writers was invited to spend one week exploring the country from Zurich via train and other public transit with a Swiss Pass.


Traveling by the rail system is the only way to go when in Switzerland.  The Swiss Pass is also good for free or discount tickets on most city buses, trams, boats and funiculars (mountain cable railways), as well as admission to most museums.

Less than two hours by rail from the Zurich airport we arrive in Fribourg which has two distinct personalities  – old and new, French and German. The bustling city center with its museums, fine restaurants and outdoor cafes is young, vibrant and smart.  In the Old Town, which dates to the Middle Ages, covered bridges cross the narrow River Sarine, leading us through winding cobblestone streets.  

Old Town, Fribourg
Not far from Fribourg is the town of Gruyere…yes, as in Gruyere cheese.  We visit the cheese factory or La Maison du Gruyere (the House of Cheese we take a Disney-esque tour of the Cailler Chocolate Factory. The highlight of Gruyere, however, lies on the cliff overlooking town. The Castle of Gruyere is the centerpiece of a walled city dating to 1270 and completely restored from cobblestone streets to quaint hotels, restaurants, and cafés.  The castle, Chateau de Gruyere, is now a museum with original murals, paintings, furnishings and even a collection of armor.
  
The medieval village of Gruyere 
Just an hour from Fribourg by train lies Interlaken, a lively town and international tourist destination if a packed Hooters smack in the middle of town means anything.  It’s also a center for adventure, with sports outfitters on nearly every corner offering everything from waterfall hikes to zip lining, bicycle tours, canyoning and white water rafting. The obvious favorite, though, is paragliding. During summer months, locals and tourists alike drop by the hundreds every day into the meadow in the center of town.

Wilderswil near Interlaken
I decided to forego the paragliding and rent an electric bike.  The Flyer bicycle is hugely popular in Europe. Unlike a scooter or Moped, the Flyer is an “electric assist” bicycle. Three levels of assistance help propel you along: Eco for flat roads,  Standard and High for uphill climbs. I spent an aftenoon exploring the nearby village of Wilderswil, and found the Flyer easy and fun.

A variety of steamboats offer delightful scenic cruises on the two lakes that border Interlaken.  We boarded a steamer on Lake Brienz to the spectacular Giessbach Falls and the grandly restored Victorian Grandhotel Giessbach.

Chapel Bridge
A  two-hour train ride from Interlaken takes us to the Medieval city of Lucerne. The city’s iconic 14th century Chapel Bridge and Water Tower may be one of Switzerland’s most recognized landmarks.  Crossing the River Reuss, the bridge draws tourists and locals alike who gather along the shore to watch the swans and relax at outdoor cafes.

If you are considering a European vacation, you can't go wrong with Switzerland. Scenic beauty, history and culture abound at every turn. I highly recommend researching and booking your trip through the Swiss Tourism web site at myswitzerland.com Here you'll find one-stop shopping for everything from lodging to a Swiss Pass. 

A sidenote: A great lodging option that allows you to save some money is by staying at a Swiss Youth Hostel. You can find modern, clean rooms at historic inns, castles and ski resorts across Switzerland for $50-$100 a night.