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Tommy’s travel tip #8: Lucerne

June 20th, 2009 1 comment

From Mount Pilatus - view of the Alps
Tip #8:Going up a mountain while afflicted with a severe cold leads to long lasting eardrum damage!*

The lady at the ticket booth assured us that “up-there” it would be nice and bright, even if it was hard to believe standing here on the ground.

It wasn’t until our cablecar had ascended halfway up Mount Pilatus (2120 m), near Lucerne in central Switzerland, that my last scepticism burned away. At ground level, it was a wet, gloomy day. Dark clouds sealed the horizons. An icy drizzle slowly but steadily turned the ground into slush. Atop Mount Pilatus
It seemed at first that the cablecar would enter the grey clouds and never emerge – in places, visibility was just a few metres. Then suddenly, it burst through the clouds, and we were bathed in brilliant sunlight. Fluffy cumulous clouds dotted a blue sky, against which stood the granite bulk of the mountain. The ticket lady was right.

Though grey clouds sometimes seem to cover the sky, the sun is still out there. All it takes is the will to climb through and find it.

Written by the shore of Lake Lucerne, 15 Jan 2009

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Kapellbrücke - Chapel Bridge - in Lucerne
* I caught a cold while standing around on Pariserplatz in Berlin at the beginning of the trip, and the cold – with associated hiccups – was still with me when I went up a few thousand metres of mountains in Lucerne. The air pressure change popped my ears – and my hearing didn’t recover until … well, I’ll save the story for another post.

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Tommy’s travel tip #7: Zürich

June 14th, 2009 No comments

A swan in the river - central Zurich, Switzerland

Travel tip #7: Exchanging money in Switzerland attracts a SFr 6 admin fee – easily avoided if you are a UBS or Credit Suisse employee or client.

Switzerland is a clockwork country. This was apparent as soon as we crossed the border from Germany. The timetable showed that we had 2 minutes to make a connection between the international train and an intercity express to Zurich – and 2 minutes were exactly what we got. Everything runs exactly on the dot – trains, ferries and buses.

Concourse of the central station

The flip-side of this, though, is that every person is expected to operate like clockwork. The pedestrian crossing light is timed precisely for the amount of time it takes to cross the street. Dally a little, or cross on an amber light, and you are likely – if you are lucky – to be stuck in the middle of the road. Jay walking is as good as any other form of suicide. You see, in a less precise country like ours, drivers and pedestrians allow for the other to not always follow the rules of the road, that some people act like idiots – that people are human. Not so in the clockwork country – here, every person is expected to follow the rules with precision. Anyone who doesn’t won’t do so for long. When I foolishly walked onto a road, the oncoming car did not slow at all – it honked and – I kid you not – actually sped up. I have it on reliable authority that Swiss driver training teaches them to mow down jay walkers, for the good of the nation.

The main street, Bahnhofstrasse, at dawn

If Switzerland is a giant set of clockwork, then the Swiss banks are the grease that keep the machine happily humming away. I wanted to find the main UBS building on Bahnhofstrasse – “Station Street” – the main street of Zurich – and noticed a curious thing: everywhere there was a UBS branch, there would also be a Credit Suisse within sight. Though there are a variety of other banks, such as the cantonal banks, the two banking giants control the system in Switzerland. I’m not sure whether it is a result of their concrete power in Switzerland, or simply another symptom of this being the clockwork country — but the bank counters were not sealed off behind glass like every other country, but instead simply a free standing white table, looking more like a demonstration area in an Apple store than a cashier’s window.

The UBS Building on Bahnhofstrasse

One result of their virtual duopoly is that foreign exchange transactions here attracted a SFr 6 exchange fee. The first time I needed to change money, the man at the counter asked me whether I was one of their clients. “No,” I replied truthfully. The second time around, I figured I’ll try my luck: “no, but I’m an employee back in Australia. Does that help?” The cashier fiddled a little with his computer, and told me, “yes, it does this time” — the fee was waived, though the exchange rate I got was quite a bit worse than the first time.

Riverside walkway

Somewhat paradoxically, the mechanical efficiency of Switzerland also results in the preservation of both history and the environment. Zurich is at once quiet and efficient, and the town centre is an eclectic mixture of modern office buildings, 19th century neo-classical edifices, and winding medieval passages.

The river teams with wildlife. Next to the busy offices where vast sums are moved across the globe, pristine white swans glide under medieval stone bridges free from grafitti. From the shore, one can counter every pebble on the bottom of the river. As might be expected, littering is unknown here. Presumably, in this perfect land litterers are packed off to the forest to be fed to the bears.

One local resident enjoying a morning swim

The only downside, though, is that the mechanical efficiency seems to have robbed the city of its soul, like a perfectly proportioned marble sculpture but devoid of expression. The saving grace in that regard, for me, was the discovery of Sprüngli.

That name is probably best known as the other half of Lindt. Both trace their origins to the chocolate business founded in 1845. When the founder, Rudolf Sprüngli-Ammann, retired in 1892, one son received the chocolate factory, which grew to become the global industrial production line that is Lindt today (with its products found in supermarkets throughout Europe and the world), while the other son received the two stores that have stayed true to their roots – and remain, today, boutiques in central Zurich specialising in chocolates and candied fruits. The Paradeplatz store features a charming cafe, a format which seems to have inspired Lindt’s cafe ventures downunder.

So it was with the satisfaction of having discovered the sweet side of Zurich – and gingerly carrying a stack of its tin-boxed products – that we hopped on the train (running precisely on time, of course) westwards, and upwards.

Zurich at night

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