To Switzerland and Austria with love

As the glass doors closed and we clustered a bit nervously among 50 people in the giant square room hanging from a cable, the music of the 1969 James Bond movie “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” began to play. Ba-da, dah. Ba-da. Upward the gondola swung, high toward a mountain peak, leaving the cliff village of Murren far below us. That ’69 Bond film was soon forgotten – it was the first after Sean Connery retired, and actor George Lazenby never gained traction as James — but the movie was shot at the summit of Schilthorn at 9,744 feet, in a four-story modernesque round building erected on a mountain spire, and the Swiss can’t forget it.

Today, the summit of Schilthorn remains branded as Bond. Inside the top restaurant Piz Gloria and cable car station, there’s a museum dedicated to Bond films, toilets with Bond femme fatale silhouettes on the doors, and photos of past actors along the walkway toward the summit’s edge. We arrived, and my wife immediately posed hugging a lifesize cutout of Lazenby as James Bond. After an hour hiking around the precipices, we ordered hamburgers at the restaurant. The buns were stamped, “007.”

Schilthorn is cheesy, but Switzerland, Austria and the Alps are not. The summer of 2017, my family spent a week and a half touring the mountains of central Europe, and came back surprised that this Germanic/Bavarian culture is not at the top of more Americans’ travel wish list. I’m sharing our itinerary and notes below, hoping it may inspire others.

Why Switzerland and Austria

Our journey began with a friend. Eight years ago my wife asked me if I’d like to join a cycling group in Connecticut, and soon we spent Sunday mornings being guided by Guido Wollmann, a Yale cancer researcher from Germany. Guido was a youth soccer star who got the cycling bug in his 30s, and quickly discovered talent – winning races, guiding novice biking teams, and while we weren’t beer-drinking-close friends, his warmth was memorable. Guido later moved back to Europe to fight cancer at an Austrian facility, and in 2015 we saw him re-visiting the U.S. at a cycling fundraiser. “You must come visit me,” he said. “Sure!” we replied, as friendly Americans always do without conviction, just as we smile too damned much without integrity. “No, you don’t understand,” Guido told me. “When someone from my country asks you to visit, we mean it. If you say yes, you must come.” The idea stuck. Two years later, it was game on.

Is Europe expensive?

Yes and no. Plane tickets can be remarkably cheap. In late winter, I began scanning direct flights near Austria, and found one from JFK to Zurich, Switzerland, for $426 including tax. Florida often costs more. Hotels in Europe can be found for modest rates, but be warned, rooms are small, so if you are a couple with kids, you’ll need two rooms. Switzerland prices were steep, but Austria’s were cheap, with full dinners there amounting to $20 or so a person. Also note: Many stores and restaurants only take cash, not credit, so get a few hundred Swiss Francs and Euros to tide you over.

The arrival complexity

We landing in Zurich, gliding over green fields and pastures and cows until hitting the rainy landing strip. For Americans, it’s stunning to realize Europe after thousands of years has avoided strip malls and suburban sprawl, with cities still tight clusters of white homes and steel buildings surrounded by what looks like Eden. Peering down from the plane, I couldn’t help but whisper to God, “Sorry, we Americans so f***ed up our side of the planet.”

Zurich’s airport is as all things European, modern and svelte and oddly complex, as if you’ve landed in an alternate universe where trafficking people on walkways is more logical but cars don’t have room for luggage. We crammed three suitcases into the largest SUV we could rent, a Mercedes, which in Switzerland is as common as Fords, and still had to perch the fourth in the middle of the back seat. I walked back to the rental counter, as my wife continued the jujitsu of stacking baggage, and asked for something bigger. “We only have vans,” he replied. I thought of European parking lots and tiny city streets. Nope, a tight back seat it is.

First top, Thun 

We were aiming for the Alps south of Zurich, but I knew we’d be tired from the flight so picked Thun, about two hours from the airport, as a first stop. Magic. Most cities in Europe have an “old town” section, but Thun felt authentic all over, and using Booking.com (no affiliation, highly recommended) I had found a boutique hotel built into the castle on the old town’s main hill. The trick was finding the damn place. We arrived in town lost – the hotel entrance was hidden at the top of a winding cobblestone walkway, and I was quickly realizing I should have studied more German and maybe street sign symbols – and I asked a local gas attendant for directions. Nope. No English. Drove around a block, and asked another man parking a car. He pantomimed. Couldn’t understand. Then he waved and said, “follow me!” The man jumped back into a tiny red car, and drove before us around several twists and turns to the hotel road entrance. I’ve realized traveling that not speaking a language gives you quicker insight into human souls — and wherever you are, Man in the Red Car, you are an angel, brother.

Thun was rapid-fire impressions of helpful people and beautiful architecture. The hotel owner poured us drinks (beer for me) as soon as we arrived, perhaps noting we had been awake for hours. I offered a tip, and he said, “No, I just do this to make our guests happy.” Down the cobblestone walk and stairs, a river flowed through the city’s center toward a lake, hinting at the Swiss beauty beyond. We slept in warm beds in a remodeled prison tower next to the castle.

Stay: Hotel Schlossberg, Schlossberg 2, 36000 Thun. You can’t check in until 4 p.m., but they’ll serve you beer or wine in the café outside peering up at the castle.

Day 2: Oeschinensee Lake, Switzerland

The phrase “Oeschinensee Lake” is redundant, because “see” means “lake” in German, but see we did. My son had scoured Instagram for photos of epic hikes in Switzerland and decided that this lake, surrounded by cliffside mountains, was a must. We took a gondola halfway up the mountain and then hiked for four hours around Oeschinensee, dodging incoming clouds and a lightning storm. The walk included black-gravel beaches around one side of the lake, and a mountain trail edging under hanging boulders to a tremendous view at the top. The next morning, my wife and I had breakfast on the hotel balcony below, looking at the meadow trailhead that wound toward the lake we had seen and the mountain peaks above. A commotion. A dozen men in their early twenties ran past, decked out in bright spandex, fancy climbing boots, and hiking poles, the equivalent of a U.S. professional cycling team on the road but in this case intent upon running up mountain slopes. My wife gazed affectionately, then looked at me and said, “I’ll be right back.”

Stay: Bernerhof Swiss Quality Hotel, Aeussere Dorfstrasse 38, 3718 Kandersteg. Check in after 1 p.m. The restaurant is amazing and the hostess will try to become your best friend. 

Day 3 and 4: Lauterbrunnen

I have to thank my son Logan for uncovering this gem in his Instagram research. Lauterbrunnen is the Yosemite of Europe, a huge valley carved U-shaped between mountains by ancient glaciers. Think of this valley as a three-layered cake. In the valley floor, Lauterbrunnen itself is a quaint village with sporting-goods shops and restaurants, with dozens of waterfalls tumbling from the high mountains above.

Two cable car gondola runs – and by gondolas, we mean massive square-bus platforms that hold 100 people – swing up to the cliffs and the village of Murren perched thousands of feet above. And the third layer, above Murren, are cable runs that take gondolas to the peaks of Schilthorn. For non-Bond fans, we found Murren to be the main attraction. It’s a perfect stop for lunch, with moderate hiking trails leading up into the mountains above. Murren itself is so high above the valley floor, it’s at the level of an airplane’s flight — paragliders launch off a field there to soar over the cliff’s edge and down to Lauterbrunnen below.

We spent the first day touring Murren, the second headed up to the James Bond peak of Schilthorn.

Stay: Hotel Silberhorn, Alte Isenfluh-Strasse, 3822 Lauterbrunnen. A wonderful 5-story hotel with wooden balconies off most rooms looking out into the valley. As a plus, the hotel is only one block away from the main gondola ride taking you up to the heights of Murren.

Day 5: Lucern, headed east toward Austria

Our plan was to visit Guido in Austria, so Lucern was a stop on the way. The focus here is not on the city but the hotel itself. We stayed at Château Gütsch, an amazing boutique hotel modeled after the Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria (famous in the movie Chitty Chitty Bang Bang). For just over $200 a night, you can give your family a fairy tale experience. Ask for room 32 if you can, it’s the corner suite on the fourth floor overlooking the entire city.

The town of Lucern itself is not much, a pretty shopping district selling watches at inflated Swiss Franc prices, but with some stunning murals and paintings on the exterior of most buildings. All I know is Charlie Chaplin stayed at Château Gütsch, and I’m wondering if he had my room.

Day 6, 7, 8: Innsbruck

Ah, the joy of friends. We spent a long weekend with Guido as our guide to Innsbruck, and were delighted to find Austrian prices are half that of Switzerland while every meal has sausage and enormous glasses of beer. Liz and Pete, two other friends, flew in from Germany to share a day. To the town’s south, we hiked up the Bergisel ski jump, a curving, skyswept architectural masterpiece by Zaha Hadid, and I met an actual jumper in the tower named Thomas. We watched him fly – ski jumpers practice in summer, landing on strips of what looks like wet astroturf.

I climbed to the top of the jump and looked down; not only do jumpers have serious balls, but Zaha Hadid had a sense of humor. The entire jump points down to a landing pad and just beyond it, over the rim, the largest cemetery in Innsbruck. Ski jumpers here must not only defy death, but leap right toward it.

The town of Innsbruck itself is stunning, with winding streets filled with shops and looming mountains above to the north and south. The airport is nearby, and given the horizontal squeeze of the mountains, jets zoom in right above the city, creating a strange juxtaposition of ancient buildings and modern rocket ships.

We found one shop dedicated entirely to bacon. Down the street, a free brass concert played to hundreds. Everywhere, Austrians rode bicycles, women in dresses and men in suits, simply to get around.

The best part of Innsbruck is the hiking around it. We drove 40 minutes to take on Rofanspitze, where trails follow flowered meadows to terrifying cliff edges. Near the top, little farming lodges provide small restaurants with sausage and soups, including one dish with a chicken broth and cheese-bread dumpling thing whose name I forget. So good.

Thank you, Guido, for sharing what looks like heaven with us for a weekend.

Stay: With good friends

Day 9, 10: Salzburg

Meh. Salzburg is a boring modern city with, well yes, a beautiful small section of its old town filled with hyper-expensive shops. There are only two things to see here, but both are interesting. First, Mozart’s birthplace. You walk into a high yellow building, set among a wall of others on a cobblestone street, and suddenly are standing in the very apartment room where the genius of classical music was born. You aren’t supposed to take photos here, but I snuck one of Mozart’s childhood violin, hanging in his birth room.

And … the castle. This was worth the hike. Salzburg has a massive castle above the town, which includes a clever museum filled with 1,000+ years of history, ancient weapons, and beer steins that show you old warriors really knew how to drink.

But forget the Mirabell Palace gardens, made famous in The Sound of Music. It’s a bunch of roses and marigolds that would not look out of place outside Xerox’s headquarters. Honestly, I could have skipped Salzburg for a few more days hiking around Innsbruck.

Stay: Hotel am Mirabellplatz, Paris-Lodron-Strabe 1, Altstadt, 5020 Salzburg. An ancient hotel built by a prince or something, but now lodged among busy streets and shops with too much traffic.

Day 11: Neuschwanstein Castle / Fussen, Germany

We had worked our way east to central Austria, needed to head back toward Zurich. So we hit up the castle made famous in “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” Bonus points, Ian Fleming wrote both that children’s book and the James Bond spy series, so this was also a bit of closure. The Neuschwanstein Castle is beautiful but … do not go near it. God. Take a photo from the road and move on. Apparently, every tourist guide to Europe promotes this castle, because it is crawling with tourists, the stinky sort, the kind that blare music while walking and weld selfie sticks as weapons and would not look out of place charging Walmart on its opening hours on Black Friday or Thanksgiving Thursday.

We took some shots and quicky retreated to, well, a wonderful hotel in Fussen. Fussen is the village 15 minutes away, and is actually a gem of shops and walkways. Recommend it as a stop. Avoid the castle.

Stay Hotel Schlosskrone, Prinzregentenplatz 4, 87629 Fussen, Germany.

Day 12: Retreat to Zurich.

The return gave us the quick thrill of some unlimited speed on the autobahn – I didn’t notice at first, until cars started to sweep by me at 200 kilometers an hour. We crashed at the Sheraton Zurich Hotel to burn up some free hotel points. It’s a nice pad, but nestled next to industrial towers and train tracks, nothing here but super-expensive room service. The front desk guy smiled warmly and asked if I were from America. I wonder if the Salzburg baseball cap I was wearing gave me away.

Stay: Never mind, it’s just a hotel

So what did we learn?

Friendliness. Almost everyone in Switzerland, Austria and Germany speaks English, and they are happy to do so. We stopped briefly in the tiny nationstate of Liechtenstein on day 6, en route between Switzerland and Austria, and a women named Heidi who didn’t speak English but invoked us to eat at her little restaurant actually invited her daughter over to our table to translate. (She seriously invoked us; we were walking by, after hiking up to a little castle, and she shouted down a greeting from a second-story window. Hallo! Open!) The people here are very, very friendly.

Orderliness. These countries are incredibly neat. Not only is there no litter anywhere, but the basics of life – street signals, crosswalk symbols, hotel bedding, coffee service – all seem neater. When you near construction on roads, everything turns orange; workers wear orange jackets, temporary road stripes are orange, and I thought, geez, this makes sense. Traffic lights that are red then switch to yellow, right before they turn green, alerting you to get ready to hit the gas. All in all, it seemed more orderly than America.

Forget Amex. Poor American Express. Most shops hate it, and about half avoid credit if possible. You’ll need to convert dollars into cash, Francs for Switzerland and Euros for everywhere else.

Diet. This was mixed. Swiss cooking is what would happen if your avant-garde hipster nephew went to a cooking school in Manhattan next to a yogurt factory; lots of tender meat surrounded by bizarre sauces. Austrian cooking, by comparison, is your grandmother if she ran your college fraternity kitchen – sausages and pork, fried meats, crispy potatoes, and lots of good beer. Let it suffice, I preferred Austrian food. Although the Swiss get points for putting a piece of chocolate out with every coffee.

Coffee. OK, I’ll be sad now. American coffee will seem watered-down dribble, once you’ve had the rich, creamy, small-dose cups of Swiss café. Coffee comes in a tiny cup in Europe, but it is thickly, drizzly warm, more a rich syrup of caffeine infused with earth and chocolate and malt than the American weak mist we know. It was not easy leaving this behind.

Budget. Yes, Europe is a bit expensive, if you’re traveling with a family of four – mainly driven by the need to get two hotel rooms everywhere you go. But if you are a couple, or a parent with one child you can squeeze in a room, it’s not bad at all.

Which country was best? The mountains of Switzerland are all pointy peaks of sex, blue sharp ridges that make you lust for the heavens. The steep hills of Austria are more muscular and earthy, covered in flowers and green meadows to the top, and more photogenic for hiking.

And Germany opens between the two countries as a flatland of green farms and blue lakes, rich for exploring. Personally, I’d vote Austria.

Last thoughts

On our second-to-last night, we drove from Fussen, Germany, back over the border into the Austrian Alps to find a lake that might work for night photography. We parked near the edge – the winding road had no guardrails – and my wife climbed down into the water for a swim. In the distance, we heard thunder approaching, quiet and then louder, and realized we should hurry to leave before lightning arrived.

A Volkswagen GTI sounded and then roared past, some young soul scorching up the two-lane lake road to test his or her racing skills. We headed out, the rain pounding. In the tunnel that cut back through the mountains, my wife placed her camera on the dashboard, and took a photo of the massive tube that Austrians had carved into the stone.

There’s something about this mountain region that seems cleaner, larger than life. Perhaps it’s how people there connect more with their environment, erecting towers of rock but leaving the fields unspoiled nearby, the way that little mountain huts surprise you with soups, or how hiking trails take you to cliffs with no railings, nothing to protect you but wit and sky. Switzerland is a land of clouds, Austria the paths to take you there. If you like to look to the heavens, consider this route.

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