You know the travel gods are by your side when your maiden trip to Europe is to its most beautiful region, Switzerland. By Rashima Nagpal
Do you remember your first extraordinary trip? Your first wine-tasting? Your first spa? Do you remember the first time you took a bus or train in a foreign land? Do you remember how it felt?
No matter how many journeys we embark on, how many places we see, and how many flights we take, our firsts are irreplaceable. At least that’s how it is for me. Thus, this story. The story of my first time in Europe. Of all the 44 countries in the continent, I was destined to land in glorious Switzerland. It was bound to be extraordinary and—as I would eventually discover—indulgent.
It begins in gloomy Zürich. My first impression of Europe takes shape under a spell of thick grey clouds. At the moment, it is only drizzling. So, we decide to keep going. A pack of five, led by an enthusiastic tour guide—Ity Tiwari—who’s laden with umbrellas, step out of the Zürich Main Station to grab some much-needed lunch.
But before we set out, Tiwari indulges us in some trivia. We are at Switzerland’s biggest and busiest train station. It comprises three levels—the platform level, the shopping level, and the historical station hall on the ground level. A big bright doll with wings hangs over us on the ground level. It is artist Niki de Saint Phalle’s Nana, “the big-bosomed guardian angel who has been watching over travellers like ourselves since 1997,” Tiwari proclaims. The hall is dotted with more artwork, including The Philosopher’s Egg by Mario Merz. Zürich Hauptbahnhof is well connected to not just every station within Switzerland, but also the neighbouring countries. “If you catch the wrong train, you might land in Paris,” someone jokes. The railway buff in me is thrilled.
A five-minute stroll brings us to an apparel store on the plush Bahnhofstrasse, reputed to be the most expensive shopping street in the world. Before I can protest and inquire about lunch, we are inside, taking the elevator to the top floor. The door opens to reveal an Asian brasserie. This is where I have my first Rivella—a classic Swiss soft drink made from milk whey.
With no signage of any sort, Restaurant Rooftop is one of the secret addresses in Zürich. There are plenty more in the old town, or Altstadt (stadt-zuerich.ch). Locals call them ‘archaeological windows’ that offer insight into the town’s medieval past. For instance, there’s a secret door on Lindenhof Square. Opening it requires you to go to Stadthaus, Schalter 04 (Townhouse, Counter 4), and ask for the keys to ‘down under’. This adventure ultimately leads you to the ruins of a Roman fort and a palace hiding in plain sight.
Back on the Bahnhofstrasse, the meal is soothing. Trams glide by outside, and the streets have surprisingly few pedestrians out and about. Turns out, most of them are at Confiserie Sprüngli, enjoying a hot cuppa or a dessert—just the kind of thing I would pursue. Born in 1836, this world-famous confectioner has boosted the reputation of Swiss chocolates. No wonder it is bursting at the seams with tourists.
Even in its pale rainy avatar, the city manages to look beautiful. But as the colour-blocked, cobblestoned Old Town begins to appear, my spirits soar. The lively Limmat River separates the old town from the Bahnhofstrasse. And the Grossmünster cathedral, with its Sigmar Polke windows, stands proudly at the intersection.
It’s a new day. And it’s a damp Sunday, which means that the people of Zürich have all the more reason to snuggle down inside their homes. Except those who are running the Zürich Marathon, of course. My priorities lie elsewhere: I am making my way to the first vegetarian restaurant in the world (as noted in the Guinness World Records).
Haus Hiltl (hiltl.ch), commonly called Hiltl, is an upscale double-storey restaurant whose story goes back to 1898, when a certain German tailor, Ambrosius Hiltl, moved to Zürich. In 1901, rheumatism forced him to give up his profession. Desperate to find a solution to his predicament, Hiltl discovered the doctrine proposed by famed Swiss doctor Maximilian Bircher-Benner–the pioneering nutritionist who invented muesli– that had a vegetarian diet at the heart of it. Sold on the idea, Hilt decided to stop eating meat. In 1903, when Switzerland’s only vegetarian restaurant, Vegetarierheim, was facing a hard time, Hiltl decided to take over as the managing director, until he finally bought it three years later. Today, Hilt is a chain of eight restaurants run by the family.
Laid out in front of me—a food-loving vegetarian—is a buffet of over 100 dishes. Who needs the sun anymore?
AFTER 48 HOURS of stone-cold weather and no sun, we are counting on the ‘sunniest part of Switzerland’ to live up to its reputation.
In Switzerland, a switch in cantons can feel like a change of countries. Ticino, a canton in the south, has its feet touching Italy. Naturally, it enjoys the best of both the worlds, including Italy’s balmy weather. The two countries also share lakes—Lake Maggiore and Lake Lugano. When compared to the rest of Switzerland, everything is different—the language, the food, the people, and the way of life.
The Gotthard Railway transports us to the Mediterranean heart of Switzerland in under three hours. Within one hour of our arrival, we have parked ourselves by the sunny lake promenade of Lake Maggiore in Ascona. This is where I bask in the popular Mediterranean vibe of an alfresco European restaurant for the first time. Handmade pasta in (almost) Italy? Check!
Over the course of the next three days, the aim is to visit three towns—Lugano, Locarno, and Bellinzona—and make the most of this potpourri. A farm and a vineyard, plenty of walkways, a gelateria, lakes, islands and boat rides, a variety of food, free-flowing Aperol spritz, and a few castles—there’s a lot that we end up experiencing. But I feel like I understand more of Ticino from Anna Bezzola, our guide for this leg of the trip than I do from sightseeing. Apart from working closely with Ticino Turismo (ticino.ch), she is a trip organiser for Ticino and Italy. That explains the name of her organisation, Alps and Beyond (alpsandbeyond.com).
We meet her in Locarno. This is when things take a rich cultural turn.
“You can tell the people of Bellinzona from the people of Locarno from the people of Lugano simply by the dialect of Italian they speak,” Bezzola says. Once upon a time, there were no roads to connect the regions, and this, she believes, is why people didn’t communicate with one another as much. “But now, Ticino is becoming a melting pot.”
Located on the northern shore of Lake Maggiore, Locarno is the smallest of the three towns. It is all about picturesque streets, homegrown boutiques, and the largest city square in Switzerland Piazza Grande, which hosts some spectacular annual events. “All roads in Locarno lead to Piazza Grande,” Bezzola quips. Around Christmas (from November 21 to January 6 this season), the Piazza transforms into a winter wonderland—with an ice rink surrounded by red carpets, a partly covered and heated terrace, a stage for live acts, four huge transparent igloo bars, and a row of small chalets that serve gastronomic delights. During summer, it famously holds two major cultural events. The music festival, Moon & Stars (July 9, 2020 – July 19, 2020), is followed by the Locarno International Film Festival (August 5, 2020 – August 15, 2020); these bring thousands of visitors from around the world. Handprints of musicians who have played in Locarno, including those of Elton John, Billy Idol, and Sting, are set in stone and paved on the pathways.
The Lugano that we see is developed and modern. It has top-notch shopping brands, none of which are found in Locarno or Bellinzona. “Locarno has begun to have some really nice ones, but Bellinzona? Forget it!” Anna scoffs. “Lugano also has a variety of fi ve-star hotels and is a famous Swiss destination among Asians and Arabs who love to indulge.” If you want to escape the city, drive to one of the remote valleys behind Locarno.
However, we only pass by the town and do not stop to ponder or luxuriate. So we grab an authentic gelato at La Gelateria di Lugano (gelaterialugano.ch) and lounge in the park overlooking Lake Lugano before we catch another train.
A journey of 25 minutes and we are ready to alight in the capital of Ticino, Bellinzona.
The simple reason to put this town on your itinerary is that it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site rich in history.
“Architecturally, this is the most authentic of the towns we have in Ticino,” states Bezzola. It doesn’t have a lake, and yet, it is the capital of Ticino. It is home to three castles—Castlegrande, Montebello, and Sasso Corbaro—which were recognised by UNESCO in 2000. They say that this is the only visible example of military defence architecture of this proportion, from the medieval times, in the Alps. The other castles in the region pale in comparison. The original purpose of the castles may not hold any relevance today, but among the people of Bellinzona, they are integral parts of their Italian heritage. Bezzola, who has been living in Bellinzona since 2002, offers a remarkable example.
During Rabadan, the second largest carnival in Switzerland, a huge mass is held at Castlegrande. And it is held facing Italy. But if you ask someone if they are Swiss or Italian, they’ll emphasise that they are indeed Swiss. When the 15-kilometre-long Gotthard Tunnel that facilitated a direct connection with northern Switzerland was built, the people of Bellinzona were afraid that they’d begin to speak German. So, in the late 1800s, they worked hard to preserve the region’s tradition of speaking Italian. It’s not difficult to see they succeeded. Today, “what happens in Bellinzona, stays in Bellinzona.”
There’s no comparing Zürich to Ticino, but both the cities leave starkly different impressions on a first-time visitor. If I must pick a shot from my gallery of pictures that best describes Zürich, it’d be that of an elegant young lady—dressed smartly in a black trench coat, a pair of block heels, a fedora, and a string of pearls—walking down an alley. From Lugano, I’d show you a photograph of a man playing football with his three children in one of the public courtyards. Invisible borders sometimes lead to rather visible differences.
BEYOND THE ALPS
There’s more to Switzerland than the Alps. For a luxe itinerary that is also culturally immersive, begin your journey in elegant Zürich and sum it up Italy-style in the canton of Ticino.
SWISS (swiss.com) serves regular direct flights to Zürich from Delhi and Mumbai.
Atlantis by Giardino, Zürich is a plush modern hotel that sits on the outskirts of the city—an ideal option to experience the Swiss countryside and have easy access to the city life at the same time. From INR 23,700; giardinohotels.ch/Zurich.
The boutique property of Giardino Ascona, at a plush countryside location, feels like a home on the border of Switzerland and Italy. From INR 36,000; giardinohotels.ch/en/ascona
Depending on the duration of your stay, buy a three-, four-, eight-, or 15-day Swiss Travel Pass in advance. Apart from unlimited travel by public transport in more than 90 cities and towns, it covers mountain excursions to Rigi, Schilthorn, Stoos, and Stanserhorn, as well as gives free admission to more than 500 museums across Switzerland. MySwitzerland.com