7. Eurail Pinball Part II
Well Thun was nice but a little devoid of life and more to see locally (Im not into tour-group excursions, even to such legendarily beautiful scenic attractions as Switzerland has), and above all Id had enough of being reduced to the vocabulary of a 3-year-old, so I decided Id flee to at least the French-speaking part of Switzerland. I didnt elaborate on the German-speaking issue in my account of Thun because I wanted to focus more on my impressions of the place and less on my own personal struggles, but lets just say I survived the experience but found it every bit as distressing as Id anticipated based on my even-more-unprepared experience in The Hague in 2003. Conversation was not possible (not that Im a big conversationalist even in English), sign-reading was a mixture of bafflement and relative ease (which made sense from a German-English overlap perspective), and simple money-for-food/service exchanges in restaurants and stores were rustic (to put it mildly), so most of the time I was silent and kept busy walking.
With nothing more to keep me in town, I headed back to the train station and got on a train to Bern (pop. ~123,000), figuring that Berns status as a rail network hub would suggest some options to me; beyond Bern, however, I really wasnt sure where I was going, although I figured Neuchâtel would probably be where I decided to pack it in for the night.
But then the trip to Bern took roughly 20 minutes. I was so surprised at the shortness of the journey that I had to study my Swissrail map a little to confirm what distance had taken so little time at which point my mind got to musing on the fact that I could travel quite a ways east into Switzerland and back before the day was over. Maybe even to the Austrian border, just to cross it for a moment and then come back before the German overload freaked me out. I did the math quickly in my head and decided I wouldnt quite be able to pull it off without the likelihood of an unanticipated wait between trains leaving me stranded far from linguistic comfort (and I was needing some linguistic comfort a.s.a.p.), but I found myself thinking well, I could get to Zurich at least, have lunch, and come back this way en route to wherever in the French-speaking area .
So I had lunch in Zurich. Just because I could.
Id always wanted to see Zurich (pop. ~340,000, metropolitan area ~973,000): its always sounded like such a crossroads of discreet power (at least in the last couple of centuries), and so proper. When I got there I found that (as the Rough Guide to Switzerland noted) the proper part has slid a bit, with grafitti and litter now part of the scenery, but above all I found that Zurich is seriously all about business. So many monkey suits! I havent been around so many suits in ages, it was refreshing to realize, and I caught myself staring at various suit-wearers to see if they seemed to have an actual personality or even a soul. (What I saw was mostly shrewd machinations at work behind the eyes, by the way.)
Because Id arrived in Zurich at lunchtime (at actual lunchtime, that is, as opposed to mine, which is more in the 14h00 region), restaurants and cafés were pretty full, and I wasnt particularly hungry anyway, so I simply bought a luncheon-meat-level sandwich from a sidewalk vendor and ate it, amid a hundred or so lunch-breaking Zürchers similarly engaged, in the little Pestalozzi-Anlage park along the Bahnhofstrasse, a few blocks south of the train station. Id already walked all the way from the station to the Zürichsee (just to have seen it once), and I wasnt inspired to explore further on this trip, with luggage, so I returned, had a quick laughing head-shake upon considering the light absurdity of the situation, and headed west on the next train to Bern.
A quick observation which may or may not be of interest: the only Starbucks I saw in Switzerland and France on this trip was in Zurich. It was hardly a surprise to see one here, but to have seen one only here was a pleasant relief. (I love the crew at my local Starbucks, but lets face it, if a coffee company is paying more attention to getting a movie produced than to the quality of its core product, it has truly lost its way. Push-button coffee drinks are McDonalds territory, kids, NOT that of the Starbucks I loved.)
Back through essentially the same scenery (all of it nice enough but not up to the glories further into the countrys interior and south) and tunnels (lots of them outside Zurich!) to Bern, and theres me on the train once again checking the Rough Guide for information on potential destinations every ten minutes or so. Id boarded a train to Lausanne which took a nice arc along the northwest frontier of Switzerland, with the understanding that thered be options for stopping wherever appealed to me. At Biel/Bienne (apparently known by both namesone French, the other Germaneven by residents) (pop. ~49,000) I started paying more attention, just in case I arrived somewhere that I clearly had to check out; thats a fun moment when it happens, and all too rare, but in this case it never did. By Neuchâtel (pop. ~31,000) Id reached definitely francophone territorythe atmosphere was different somehow, more south-facing, as it were, and there were suddenly vineyards aplenty to be seen, but Neuchâtel itself had no attraction for me upon arrival, so I let it slide by. Yverdon-les-Bains (pop. ~23,000), at the south end of the calm-enough Lac Neuchâtel, looked just as sleepy.
Nearly resigned to making Lausanne my destination, despite a nagging sense that this still wasnt the right time for me there, I started looking at other train route options and the cities along them, and part of the description of Fribourg in the Rough Guide caught my eye: one of Switzerlands best-kept secrets. Its winningly attractive medieval Old Town, almost perfectly preserved, is set on a forested peninsula in a meander of the River Sarine. The afternoon was slowly running out and I couldnt think of anything else to top that that would offer a sufficient selection and diversity of sights and dining options; Gruyère and nearby Bulle had been suggested to me, before my departure, by Émile who runs the excellent Champion Wine Cellars in Seattle, but upon consideration I decided that would be better enjoyed if I were travelling via car rather than train, free to move further afield. So to Fribourg I went, really not sure what to expect. (Which is a dandy prospect, to me.)
All that I recall now of the approach to Fribourg is that the scenery suddenly got a bit extreme: everything had a foothills feel to it upon leaving Lausanne, and it was generally more interesting and varied than what Id seen along Lac Neuchâtel and the western regions, but at Fribourg there was suddenly a hint of some serious vertical zigzag tucked amid that pleasant clustering of slopes. Little did I know what awaited me away from the train station as the train arrived in Fribourg.
It was only later that I consulted a map and realized Id travelled 400 km (250 miles) that day, through seven cantons (three of them twice, technically), and ended up a whopping 40 km (25 miles) from my starting point.
Text © 2006 Mark Ellis Walker, except as noted