I had a last-minute change of plans this spring when I decided to go to Italy instead of straight to the Netherlands. Thus, it was a pleasant surprise for me to get offered an extreme last-minute road trip through Switzerland with a friend.
Starting from Milan Airport with a Rental Car
My trip began at Malpensa Airport, the international airport half an hour away outside the city from Milan. To get there, I got a train from Verona to Milan and then had to get a metro across town to my rideshare. Public transportation to the airport can get outrageous. The flat fare for taxis is €90 (about $100)! The train is €13 ($14.50) which isn’t bad. Flixbus is the most reliable option for €8 ($9). The cheapest option, if you can find a ride when you need it, is Blablacar – Europe’s online rideshare program. The going rate between Milan and Malpensa is only €3, and that’s also the fastest way to go.
I had a little hiccup when I got out of the metro station as I was already late and I couldn’t find the restaurant where I was supposed to be meeting my ride, but the driver was patient with me and helped me find the car. The time for me wasn’t an issue, as I was only meeting my friend at the airport and I was a couple hours early. Sadly, I arrived just after the shops closed at the airport! Thank god I usually carry a bag of dried meat or granola bars with me when I travel.
Preparing for a Road Trip Through Switzerland
We picked up the car from a rental agency at the airport early the next morning. We had a very special meeting – one of the two reasons my friend was headed to Switzerland – but first we needed supplies. Specifically, food and gas. Once we crossed the border, I was told that things would get ridiculously expensive. I later found the validity in that statement. We received the car with a full tank of gas, but stopped at Lidl (my favorite cheap supermarket) to pick up provisions for the weekend.
With plenty of snacks, sandwich ingredients and drinks, we made our way to France. Yep, before Switzerland, I had a date with a world-famous character. My friend had already met them, and now it was my turn to get introduced to Gobi. To get there, we had to go under Mont Blanc. There’s a tunnel from Italy to France that goes under the mountains to the alpine village of Chamonix. That wasn’t a cheap tunnel, but the scenery on both sides was stunning.
In 2016, an ultramarathoner named Dion Leonard was running the 155-mile Gobi Marathon in China. On the second day, he noticed a stray dog running with him. That day, the dog ran 23 miles. Over the next two stages of the race, the dog ran a total of 77 miles! Across the desert! And it’s a small dog – some kind of mix; possibly box terrier, Shih Tzu or Chihuahua. Dion appropriately named the dog Gobi.
It took quite a bit to get Gobi back to Europe. As she was a stray, she had to go through a month quarantine. Then there were different rules about what planes he could ride on, what countries she could go through, etc. The book Finding Gobi was written about the whole adventure, and Twentieth Century Fox – well perhaps now Disney – is making a movie about Gobi and her incredible story of perseverance.
Gobi now resides in Chamonix with Dion and his wife Lucja. I had a chance to meet Lucja and Gobi for a couple hours at a cafe and got to take some selfies with the dog. She was still recovering from a surgery she had, but she loved my petting and some bits of salmon from our sandwiches. Learning about her determination and dedication in the race was fascinating. I love that so many people around the world are reading the story and finding their own dreams and purposes to follow.
The Road to Bern
A little after 3 p.m., we crossed the border into Switzerland, country #50 for me! The first few miles into the country are a windy road through the mountains. I was in my element, as that’s the kind of road I learned to drive on back in California. At the end of the mountain pass, I turned a curve and it was as if the world fell out below. A city at the bottom of the valley lay hundreds of feet beneath us. Or at least that’s how it seemed. Obviously the road had switchbacks down to the valley floor, but you couldn’t see that from the vantage point. It was my first introduction to the majesty of the views in Switzerland.
As we continued into the country, things got more and more beautiful. The eastern end of Lake Geneva was gorgeous The lake was a stunning shade of turquoise. On the shores was Chillon Castle – right out of a fairytale. I wish I could have gotten a photo, but we were on the highway with no place to stop. I definitely didn’t research my photo opportunities before getting started on the road trip. A bit further on, just south of the highway, is the Gantrisch Nature Park, full of great hiking trails I’ll have to get back to someday.
Gruyeres on a Budget
We arrived in the beautiful hilltop village of Gruyeres a little after 5 p.m., not long before sunset. The town is built around a castle with a beautiful walking street leading up to it. There are several restaurants, cafes and novelty shops lining the street ready to charge you an arm and a leg for an afternoon snack. If you’re on a budget, there’s really only one thing you can do. Walk around and gawk at the beauty.
If I hadn’t been on a budget, and if I had arrived a bit earlier before it closed, it would have been nice to explore the castle in the center of town. Gruyeres is primarily known for its cheese exports, and there are plenty of places to have a fondue…for $30 or more.
The castle dates back to the 13th century. I can’t say what’s inside, but it has one hell of a view from the outside terrace. The city is surrounded by beautiful, snow-covered mountains, one of which is the Moléson – somewhat similar to the Matterhorn.
Another non-budget-friendly pair of attractions in town is a bar and museum for HR Giger, the famous Swiss painter and one of the designers of the creatures in the Aliens movies. Entry to the museum is $12.50 (surprisingly reasonable but closed by the time I got there), and you can only get pictures from within the bar if you are a customer. The interior looks like an alien ship, but is a $5 cappuccino or a $15 cocktail worth it? Not on my budget!
A Night in Bulle
For my first evening in Switzerland, we stayed at a hotel in Bulle. Well, it was called a hotel, but there was no reception. It was more like an Airbnb (which is how we booked it) in a hotel building. You got a code which you typed into a safebox next to the door to get the key.
The challenge was to find a parking space. The hotel didn’t have enough spots for the guests, so I had to find another place in town. I’d heard that the traffic fines in Switzerland can be ridiculous – like over a grand for a ticket – so I wasn’t interested in taking any chances. Luckily there were three spots not too far away behind a couple restaurants. Not much else to say about Bulle. It’s a small town, immaculately clean as every Swiss city is.
Bears and Bliss in Bern
We got to Bern, the capital of Switzerland, around lunchtime on Sunday. After all the beauty I had seen in the country, this city was surreal. Everything just seemed too picturesque, too clean and too…well…perfect. The town was full of gorgeous, timeless buildings with an impossibly vibrant turquoise river flowing through the center.
By the main bridge that spans the Aare River is an attraction which perhaps is the only mar on this otherwise idyllic city. Recessed in the ground are two large bear pits. A handful of bears have lived there for years. The pits weren’t that big so a few years ago, hundreds of people around the world donated to an extension of the pits. Now a large section of the hillside next to the river is a bear sanctuary, complete with a shady pool next to the river.
The day was moderately warm so we went down to the river to put our feet into the water. Now, that water is snow runoff from the mountains and it’s freezing! But I’ve swum in the Baltic Sea and the beaches of Scotland which are just as cold, so I was happy to keep my feet submerged for several minutes.
All that relaxation helped us to build up an appetite, and before long we were headed to lunch. We rendezvoused with her newlywed brother (her second reason for visiting Switzerland) at the Tramdepot restaurant overlooking the river and the city. Always a fan of trying the local cuisine, I ordered sausages with a side of rosti – a dish similar to American hashbrowns but so much tastier! My friend ordered a flammekueche, something of a cross between a pizza and a Hungarian langos. It was absolutely delicious, but I nearly died when I saw the prices. I’m infinitely grateful to her brother for covering the bill!
Lemon and Basil Gelato at Obenhofer Castle
Such an amazing lunch obviously had to be followed up by dessert. We made our way up the Aare River to Thunersee Lake. There on the shores was yet another beautiful village. Obenhofer wasn’t big, but it’s the kind of place I would happily visit for several weeks for relaxation…if the prices weren’t exorbitant. As it was, I had an iced chai latte and she had some lemon and basil ice cream. Both were superb.
I really wanted to go swimming, but there wasn’t really a designated spot. Instead, I settled for getting some photos of Obenhofer Castle and the surrounding mountains. I just couldn’t get over how picturesque everything was. Um, maybe I already said that.
Sneaking Behind Staubbach Waterfall
We really wanted to take a funicular and had the one in Isenfluh in mind, but the price for it was just out of our budget, and it was also getting a bit late too. We opted to go further down the valley to the Staubbach Waterfall, a stunning cascade several hundred feet down a sheer cliff face.
There was a trail leading up to a viewing platform beneath the waterfall, but the gate was shut. That seemed to be a mistake as it wasn’t really that late in the day, and there didn’t seem to be anything wrong with the trail. So I went around the gate and up the trail. The platform gave a great view, but I wanted better. There was a tunnel leading back to the cliff face with a red bar across it. It didn’t actually seem to be a deterrent as you could easily go around the bar. I did. On the other side of the tunnel, a path had been cut or formed into the cliff. I followed it and ended up behind the waterfall! Now that provided some really stunning shots!
Do You Fondue?
That evening, we picked up some fondue mix to cook at home. We had another Airbnb in the village of Wolhusen. It was a fantastic little apartment and thankfully had a fully equipped kitchen. The owners upstairs even had the standard fondue pot for us to use. By the end of the evening, I was feeling just a little bit gluttonous!
Leaving Too Soon
All too soon, it was time to leave Switzerland. I had been in the country for less than 48 hours, but my friend had a flight from Milan and we had a couple hundred miles of driving to get back. On the way to Italy, we passed one stunning waterfall after another, endless blue lakes, funiculars and fairy tale villages.
I was fascinated by the engineering of Swiss roads. They tunnel all over the country, which makes sense since the country is full of mountains. At one point, Google maps showed that our road crossed over itself three times! We later found that it was a road that switches back and forth above a tunnel. Some of the other tunnels seemed to go on forever. The longest was a staggering 10 miles!
By lunchtime, we were back in Italy. To be fair, northern Italy isn’t too dissimilar from Switzerland. Lake Como was almost as blue, and I’ve been told that Trentino-Alto Adige, just to the north of Trento, is like a slightly cheaper version of Switzerland where they even speak a vague dialect of German. I guess I’ll have to visit that location someday too, but I just can’t wait to get back to Switzerland. Two days simply wasn’t nearly enough.
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Here’s some extra reading to save hundreds on your next vacation or stage of your journey.
- 5 Steps to Book Cheap Flights
- Hostels: To Book or Not to Book
- Is Workaway Worth it for the Traveler?
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