No epic adventure through Europe should be “go-go-go” all the time; a little down time is important as well. Ours was a 6-week trip that began with 10 days in Ireland, followed by a week-long Rhine River cruise. So we scheduled a break between the two for a chance to rest and relax.
Actually, our real reason for the planned break was that we wanted to take advantage of the situation – and okay, I'll confess that we had no intention to “relax.” It makes no sense to us why people will fly in the day of a cruise, get on the ship and leave right away, without even seeing the country for a day or two beforehand. I mean, we were in a new country, and isn't the point of taking a river cruise to see Europe?
Walking around Zurich
As the nearest international airport to our cruise embarkation point in Basel, we flew into Zurich, which just so happens to be the largest city in Switzerland. It boasts of over 50 museums and more than 100 art galleries as well as the most flamboyant and lively nightlife in Switzerland. We prefer to remain outdoors though, so if nothing else, we reasoned that we could find enough Swiss chocolates and Alpine ambiance to keep us entertained. On the other hand, perhaps an impromptu day trip from Zurich to somewhere nearby might be fun as well.
Zurich is a pretty city, with a clear river running through the middle of town into a beautiful lake, and church spires tower above the rooftops here and there. A scenic round-trip tram ride through town on our first day gave us enough reason to explore the town center on foot.
Tip: The city's Zurich Card offers unlimited public transport and free admission to most of its museums.
Confession: A highlight was the 12 Euros we spent in a ridiculously large chocolate shop we -erm- not so accidentally wandered into. We purchased six chocolates with luscious fillings like “champagne truffle” and “Grand Marnier,” and shared each one 50/50. Every decadent bite was exquisite.
But that's not what this story is about.
Day trip from Zurich to Mount Pilatus
The next morning we set out for Mount Pilatus which, legend has it, is home to dragons and the resting place of Pontius Pilate's body. True or not, Pilatus is a beautiful mountain in its own right. It is said that on a clear day the mountain offers a panoramic view of 73 Alpine peaks. Not surprising I suppose, considering that the mountain is well over 2,100 meters (7,000 feet) high.
If your budget allows, you can enjoy a Golden Round Trip, a full-day excursion involving a boat trip, the cogwheel railway, aerial cable cars and panorama gondolas. The whole shebang. It would be worth the cost for the views alone.
Unfortunately, the cost of our extensive trip meant we weren't able to indulge. We chose a more economical route, first by taking a typically Swiss (read: efficient) train to Lucerne. Once in Lucerne we walked to the bus station where Bus #1 carried us to Kriens at the base of Mount PIlatus. There, we were able to catch the cable car to the summit. Okay, actually it was a series of rides and transfers, due to the mountain's topography.
The ride was a surreal experience in itself. We could see local farms and hear a bell tinkle on the occasional Swiss cow as we rose. Enchanting houses that could have been straight out of Heidi begged to be photographed, but we couldn't catch them in time. At least Dan took a photo of a belled cow in someone's yard, as a souvenir.
Our cable car stopped on the way up to disgorge all its passengers and return those waiting to the base of the mountain. Some left for other activities: a hike through the verdant mountain forest, a chance zip line or traverse a long rope bridge, or watch their kids play at the massive children's playground. We followed those who continued on and changed to a different kind of cable car for the steep, final leg of the journey.
Atop Mount Pilatus
When the cable car spit us out between the mountain's two pinnacles, we found ourselves in a welcome center with a restaurant and shops. Not needing any souvenirs, we headed outside onto the large concrete viewing platform, a hotel and some paths for any visitors who wanted to take a walk.
We chose the path to the highest spot and climbed a set of steep rock steps, narrow enough in spots to require turning sideways to pass those on the way down. I took my time going up so as not to miss the many colorful alpine flowers growing in the crevasses along the way. The journey is part of the fun.
Let me tell you: The spectacular view at the top made our tiring climb worthwhile. On one side we could see miles of lakes and farmland and on the other were snow-capped mountains, including glacier-topped Mt. Titlis. I'm not sure if all of them were even in Switzerland. We could've been looking into Germany, for all I knew.
As the random clang of a cow bell reached my ears a man began to play his alphorn on the platform. I hugged myself against the breeze, cooled by the snow on the distant peaks. “All we’re missing” I told Dan, “is someone yodeling.”
An apfel strudel with warm custard sauce and a tall mug of hot chocolate (not Swiss Miss brand!) refreshed us for our descent. Rather than return the way we came, “the steepest cogwheel train in the world” carried us down to a train station on the other side of the mountain.
Quick trip to Lucerne
Back in Lucerne we seized the opportunity to walk around a bit. The views were amazing. Of course we crossed the city’s iconic wooden bridge while there. It dates from 1333.
Finally, to strengthen us for our trip back to Zurich, we chose an economical slice of pizza from a street vendor and enjoyed it while sitting by the lake. Pizza in Switzerland? I hear you ask. Yes, friends, some things are universal.
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Updated version. Originally published: August 12, 2011.