It’s 10.44pm and the bus station is full of buses. Everything is a hive of activity. I’ll just get a coke from the machine in the train station. It takes 3 minutes. It’s 10.47 when I get back. The place is deserted - all the buses left together at 10.46pm. I wait 27 minutes. Its 11.14pm. 2 minutes later as the digital clock ticks to 11.16pm all the buses in the bus station all leave together with me on one.
I’m in Thun in Switzerland and it ticks like a clock. The town has a river running through it, some nice shops, some bars, an area where rock groups play and it is safe, clean and works. Transport and time seemed to rule everywhere. Trains connect with each other, buses run to time. In fact the only bit of the holiday that didn’t work was British.
The British bit was the flight from Manchester on the Saturday via the airline known by them as Flybe. and me as ************* (expletive deleted). In my opinion they have proved to be consistent in their uselessness. They called the flight over the airport speakers and as we walked to the gate to board the plane a little man appeared and began to take one engine to pieces. It was obvious it wouldn’t fly (and I was pleased that they didn’t decide to test the repair to the engine on us). I wouldn’t have booked this package had I know it was them.
Eventually 5 hours late it took off and we landed at 9.40 pm in Geneva. Now the problem was that we had to get to the hotel which involved 2 train journeys half way across Switzerland with a final bus journey to the hotel. At 4.00pm this would have been pleasant. However the next train would now leave at 10.40pm from Geneva to Bern, where we would change to go to Thun and on to Hilterfingen where the hotel was. We got to the hotel at 2.30am and there were 3 envelopes which had been stuck to the door and had now fallen off. In the envelopes there were keys for our bedrooms on the 4th floor. The hotel had gone to bed!
The rest of the holiday also seemed to be about the Swiss transport system. For example on the Sunday after we had breakfasted we caught a boat on the Thunersee lake which 2 hours later dropped us in Interlaken. We caught a train from there to Meiringen, had lunch, caught a bus to the Reichenbach falls (where Sherlock homes fought Moriarty), caught the funicular down, walked a bit, and caught the train back to Interlaken. Horror of horrors it was late, the only time that anything was late in Switzerland and we missed the connection to the boat and so we had to catch the bus back to the hotel. Two trains, 2 buses, 1 boat and a funicular. Six journeys.
If you follow the trips day by day they mount up. I won’t bore any one with the logic but we made a total of 51 interconnecting trips during the week. It was a good job that we had the Swiss half fair pass and that everything just somehow worked.
The hotel was Hotel Bellevue du Lac. We were clearly second class guests having booked with Thomson. I don’t think Thomson describing it as an Interlaken hotel was quite fair. It was 45 minutes by bus from Interlaken. So a trip to Interlaken and back took 1 and half hours. Or to put it another way we spent 9 hours on that one bus in the week.
The hotel was owned by a Basil Fawlty type guy whose grasp of English was about as good as our grasp of German. This did make communication difficult. However, he managed to convey that we were welcome to enjoy our stay no instructed to enjoy it - providing we were quiet. We were staying half board, which usually means that you get a set meal if you want it or you can opt for a more expensive alternative if you wish. Not here.
We second class citizens ate in the hotel restaurant whereas the real people ate lakeside. So you had a huge ornate restaurant that was almost empty except for the second class tables set for us. The menu was photocopied and consisted of soup, meat or fish and a sweet. The service was great but it was fairly rapidly apparent that although the food was well presented it was as minimal as they thought they could get away with. This was a shame as we were induced to spend less on drinks than we would otherwise have done.
I got fed up with walking down to the lakeside and seeing the first class customers eating spectacularly better food than us and so we decided to eat in town on the Friday. We had none descript Pizzas and had a couple of drinks in local bars before we caught the 10.46pm on the dot back to the hotel.
Since this was our last night we thought we’d have a final beer and ordered one at which point the hotel owner appeared. “Where vere you at dinner” he asked. “Oh we thought we’d go into town” I said “We missed you, you know, you should have let us know”
“Oh, I’m sorry I didn’t know”
“Yes, you should have told reception. You know all the food is prepared in ze same kitchen”
“Yes I did know that, sorry to have broken your system, we won’t do it again”
“Zat is alright then, enjoy yourselves quietly”
It was all we could do to stop ourselves laughing at being told off like naughty school boys.
There is church opposite the hotel and it has bells which mark the passing day chiming every 15 minutes. But at 8.00pm and 8.00am they chime for 15 minutes straight. This is not quiet. However this does not seem to annoy but fit into the quaint category.
On Monday we decided to go to the Jungfrau and see the Eiger. The train journeys are spectacular. The Eiger and the other mountains awe inspiring. The train takes you 11km through the mountain on a route to the top that took 16 years to blast. It stops in the tunnel so that you can look through windows at the mountain. On the way up they play multilingual videos to tell you about how wonderful it all is. After all a black tunnel is a black tunnel.
On the way up the train stops so that we can get out and look through windows in the tunnel at the mountain side and the views. You are seeing the legendary north face of the Eiger. The idea of men having the hubris to attempt climbing it is amazing. It is essentially a monster of loose shale, that is held together when frozen and an enormous sheet of scree when not. It is the scale that is staggering, a man would be a dot set against the majesty of the slope.
The foolhardiness in climbing it would be enormous. When we were there we heard that 3 climbers had been killed on the much easier Matterhorn. To climb the Eiger is to risk everything for sheer exhilaration and to me the equation doesn’t stack but for the dedicated adrenal junkie the fix must be awesome. The death stats are equally awesome.
Eventually at the top of the Jungfraujoch you get off at the top some 3,000 metres above see level. There are some souvenir shops, an ice palace, a couple of cafes, including a Bollywood themed one and when we were there a complete white out. No views at all just a bitterly cold wind and snow.
The lack of oxygen is weird, you feel drunk but without any of the pleasure. Running up 2 flights of stairs was clearly not a good thing to do. There is a muon counter at the top which counts the number of muons incident in a spark chamber and directs you to look at the equivalent device in Bern. The theory is that muons should be incredibly short lived particles but because they are travelling near the speed of light we see more of them than we should. In Bern there are less detected because they have had to travel further to get there. It turns out to be so and the universe is therefore behaving as it should.
Since this was Switzerland just as I got off the train my mobile phone rang. These guys even make mobiles work inside the top of a mountain. Of course all the toilets work spotlessly 3km above the sea!
I sent a postcard back home and it arrived on Wednesday morning. The efficiency goes on and on.
Even catching the train back down the mountain they check your ticket. I do wonder how many casual climbers they catch trying to sneak down without a ticket. On the way back the train descends through the tunnel and half of the passengers, including me, fall asleep.
On Tuesday we went to Bern. It was closed whilst they rebuild it entirely except for the museum. As we arrived to pay an American woman stood in front of us and demanded 96 tickets please. 96! The lady in the payment kiosk was unphased counted out 96 arm bands and said (in perfect English of course) that will be 546 francs please. The American woman counted out the wad of notes and handed them over. We thought we’d be trapped by the American hoardes but we never saw them again.
The Einstein exhibition was brilliant (and trilingual) but they didn’t do food. We saw the other muon counter.
On Friday we went up to the Schilthorn piz Gloria, via a complex interconnection of 1 bus, 1 train and 2 cable cars. This is the mountain where they filmed sections of the 1969 James Bond film On Her Majesties Secret Service starring George Lazenby. You can buy the most tacky Bond souvenirs in the Café at the top, if you want. We had a coffee instead.
No matter how many photographs and images that you have seen without being there you cannot get any real sense of scale of the enormity of the mountains. Even when you are there the visual scale cues are difficult to get. The air is crystal clear and frankly it is difficult to tell if an object is 2 miles away or 500 yards. The air was thin at the top and we walked across the top of the mountain following carefully the paths with multithousand feet drops either side. The clouds were rising at alarming rate and we retreated to the safety of the restaurant.
It is one of the paradoxes of Switzerland that they do seem to allow you to hurt yourself if you want to. On the Eiger stop in the tunnel there is a sign advising you not to go outside, but it’s your choice. If you must hurt yourself feel free. There are signs on the Schilthorn warning about the dangers on the paths. But feel free, no one will stop you if you choose to wander off.
When we went out in the evening there were groups of army men wandering around. These were guys doing national service but they all seemed to have got the party line and stayed well within control. They were not a threatening presence at all. Apparently in Switzerland conscription is general every year for all men between 20 and 40 for varying periods. The more senior you are the longer you get to serve. There are all sorts of rules associated with it but it does seem to provide some kind of unity.
Smoking does seem to be a freedom which continues to be enjoyed extensively if somewhat annoyingly. Coming from the land of the nanny state where smoking is akin to taking crack I quite liked this. Drinking on the other hand is to be enjoyed responsibly. Getting drunk did seem almost impossible with universal waitress service in the bars which means that it takes at least twenty minutes to get another beer. There would be no way that this would work in an English pub.
We only saw one drunk, who was in Geneva railway station. He had parked himself tidily upon a left luggage shelf and was sleeping blissfully with a wide happy smile on his face dreaming, no doubt, of his next drink and how he had beaten the system.
On Wednesday we went to Interlaken again. We had noticed the paraglyders circling the sky and we wanted to try them. There was a girl stood behind an portable Apple computer and a placard advertising joint flights. We asked if and when a flight could be achieved. She spoke perfect English of course and said if we could hang around for 10 minutes the flight could start. It would cost 100 francs (less than £50).
10 minutes later the minibus arrived and swept my son into the hills so he could jump off. Some one had to photograph the event so I did. The flight I am reliably informed was awesome! I passed the placard several times and the girl was sitting down having coffee whilst the laptop remained on display. I pointed out that the laptop was vulnerable to theft. She doubted it and given that it was still there at the end of the week she was probably right.
On that note we passed a computer store in Hilterfingen which had all their computers, chips etc on display behind single panes of glass with no CCTV at night. You couldn’t do that in England.
On Thursday morning we went to Interlaken by bus again. We had booked the white water rafting trip with the girl who had the apple laptop. The mininbus arrived on time and took us down the road to this shack. They explained that we had to get changed into wet suits and put all our gear into a locker. The locker didn’t work, however – none of the lockers worked but heh! not to worry they’d lock the door when we left. The lock on the toilet door didn’t work either but since this was Switzerland it was clean and hygienic.
It was with some trepidation therefore that I consigned all my credit cards, my passport and several hundred pounds in cash to their none existent security. We signed in to say we wouldn’t sue them and I noticed all of the birthdates apart from mine started with 1980 something mine started with 1950 something. This was not reassuring. I was the oldest person there by 30 years!
We were briefed in English (there were a few Germans, who had their own briefing, but the remaining 30 people were english speakers.) The briefing amounted to – if you fall in - don’t stand up. And dressed in wet suits we boarded a coach which towed the rafts and drove off up to the white water river. It was rapid and white and down we went, bouncing off rocks and generally having a good time. There were the 7 in the raft, the3 of us and 4 americans who seemed happy to fool around a lot. Inevitably one of them fell in and had to be rescued. When the water slowed a bit we all jumped out and were towed by the raft for a while. The trip lasted for maybe an hour and a half. We eventually returned for a complimentary beer and pieces of Swiss cheese. Most importantly I was reunited with my money, cards and passport. How could I have doubted them?
So Go – the scenery is fantastic and its different and not that expensive (We went at the end of July 2007) .