For a Canadian, used to American-style border crossings, landing for the first time at the Geneva airport is an eye-opening experience.
Filing through the customs line, I was asked just three questions by the officer — two of which were me just restating information that was already on my passport. My girlfriend Amy, when the officer learned she didn't speak French, was simply waved through, no questions asked.
It was our introduction to the pleasant efficiency that is Swiss culture.
As we were planning our three-month adventure, tripping around the Mediterranean, we soon realized that money would be tight. We had chosen to land in Geneva for no particular reason save that it was the cheapest flight to Europe we could find (by hundreds) and we pounced on a web-only deal that I had found in my email spam folder.
Then we asked our bosses for the time off. And then we realized — uh-oh.
Luckily, for two Canucks who are in Europe for the first time, Switzerland is an excellent way to ease into the culture change. In particular, Geneva, an international city that is mostly French, feels a little bit like Montreal. Different enough to be different, but similar enough that you're not overwhelmed.
However, there's no denying that Switzerland is an expensive place. But with a little research, the savvy traveller can find plenty of places to save Francs (the Swiss have kept their won currency, rather than join the Euro-zone).
The first big money-saver was a Swiss Rail Flexi-Pass. Only available to non-Swiss, the Flexi-Pass is a bargain-hunter's bargain.
For one price, you can ride any train in Switzerland, on any three (or four) days of your choosing, within a one-month period. You can buy it at any train station, and during the months of September and October, the Swiss railway SBB was offering a two-for-one deal. That means Amy and I had unlimited train travel for four days for less than $290. Not each, together.
Oh, and the pass includes free museum entry (to any museum) on your travel days, as well as free public transit in every major Swiss city.
Oh, and on your non-travel days, you still get 50 per cent discounts on museums, train and transit tickets.
Every Swiss resident we told about the Flexi-Pass goggled their eyes at us. And we took full advantage, criss-crossing the scenic country from north to south, east to west.
To get the best from our limited time in Switzerland, and to stretch our limited budget, we were also staying as much as possible with locals. We stayed one night with a friend of my mom's in a rustic rural town north of Lausanne where the tinkling of cowbells serenaded us to sleep after a dinner of traditional raclette (along with fondue, the Swiss have two national dishes based around melted cheese — I like this place).
But you don't have to know a friend of a friend to stay with a local. Through a website called Couchsurfing.org, we've been arranging stays with local hosts for as much as possible in our trip.
Despite the name, we haven't slept on many couches. Our host in Geneva was a Frenchman living just outside of Geneva (technically in France, but really part of the city) who had a futon for us. Our host in Zurich gave up her own bedroom and slept on the couch herself.
Both went out of their way to take us around their cities, to help us plan activities, and to give us advice and pointers for the rest of our trip.
On a time-limited tour such as ours, we had to get the most out of each city in as little time as possible. Only a local can help you do that — our Geneva host drove us everywhere; our Zurich host was a whiz at that city's public transit.
But mostly, we saw Switzerland by train. The scenic journeys are what I really recommend here. We took a trip called the Golden Pass from Geneva to Zurich — it's amazing to see the transition from French to German, and from vineyards to cattle pastures, as the trip wound through the mountains. We stopped in the tourist town of Interlaken — think Wasagaming on steroids — where we took a funicular up to a mountaintop where we drank Swiss beer (a Rügen Brau) under the gaze of the famous Jungfrau and Eiger peaks.
We also used the train to take us to the Rhine Falls — Europe's largest — near the Swiss border with Germany. They're no Niagara, but they are powerful and impressive in a different way. On the trip back, I recommend a stop at the pretty town of Winterthur, which has a large pedestrian zone that is filled with interesting shops and great cafés.
If you have time (we had to hurry to make it) a boat ride across Lake Zurich is a great way to decompress after a lengthy journey. It skips from town to town, as gives a real sense of Swiss life. We waved to sailboats, saw people fishing from the shore — even a wedding reception.
On a lazy Sunday, when all the shops were closed, we got out of town. Following the advice of an older woman on the train, we took a fast rail jaunt to the town of Brig, on the other side of the Jungfrau / Eiger area we had seen from Interlaken. From there, we caught a bus (still included in our passes) to the tiny villa of Blatten.
Then, we took a cable car — up, up, up, until we reached a huge network of hiking paths at the top of the mountain. It's quite possible we were the only tourists there, although it is apparently a popular place for Swiss people themselves to visit.
There are dozens of chalets and lodges at the top, along with hotels every few kilometres. You can hike from mountain to mountain, with swinging bridges across glaciers, ridiculous switchbacks up and down cliffs and traditional stone sheep corrals everywhere you look. We were at an altitude of about 2100 metres, which is about the tree line, and it was really really foggy.
That was too bad, because the views are supposed to be spectacular. However, the dense white fog gave an eerie sort of introspection to the hike that was pleasant in a different way. We stopped for hot soup at the Hotel Belalp, and then hiked back to take the cable car back down.
If you only had time to take one train in Switzerland, you would probably take the famous Glacier Express. We didn't take that train, although we did follow most of its route on other trains. Hint: You don't have to buy the "special" train tickets — ordinary Swiss take those trains as local transportation all the time, and it's cheaper. Most of the branded train cars have slightly bigger, panoramic windows that stretch to the roof, but those cars are hitched to regular trains, which also have big windows — and the regular windows open, perfect for glare-free photos.
The less-famous cousin of the Glacier Express is the Bernina Express. They share about half of the same track, but the Bernina heads south into Italy, perfect for us.
Crossing the Alps on the Bernina is the trip of a lifetime. We shared our car (again, not a special "Bernina" train car, but just a regular one, on a regular ticket), with several families taking their children to experience the ride.
Passing the famous ski resort of St. Moritz, the train ascends the mountains on a hundred-year-old track (I'm sure it's been renovated) that is spectacular from start to finish. Sit on the right for the best views of curving viaducts, massive glaciers (even this late in the summer season), surging rivers, and green-blue lakes.
On the descent, at least at this time of year, the change is immediate. Although you're still in Switzerland, the language has changed to Italian, as had the architecture. But it's also warmer, and the trees haven't yet started to turn yellow.
We changed trains in the Italian town of Tirano — and the differences got even more stark. Now we were on a creaky, regional Italian train, headed to Milan. Switzerland, with miles of perfectly manicured hedges, receded behind us. Ahead lay the shabby chic — and very chic — of Italy.