This is the second of four reports that editor/writer/researcher Cameron Hewitt sent me from his travels in Norway, Switzerland, and Poland as he’s updating our guidebooks. — Rick
Only when coming from Norway does Switzerland seem reasonably priced. Dropping $20 or $25 on a decent Swiss dinner felt like a big relief. (Later, when I was in Poland, I could eat like royalty for $20. In Warsaw I had lunch for $2…banana, egg-salad sandwich, and a bottle of water. But, as the stray hair I found in the sandwich attested, sometimes you get what you pay for.)
In the past I’ve usually focused on the Germanic core of Switzerland, so I forgot how diverse this little country is. This time, I zipped around the Romance language-speaking fringe — Lausanne and Gruyeres (French), Appenzell (OK, that’s still German), St. Moritz area (Romansh), and Lugano (Italian). Every day or two, I switched languages. Though I never crossed a border (aside from a 30-minute detour into Liechtenstein), there was as much culture shock from place to place as if I’d traveled from Paris to Munich to Rome. By the time I got to the Romansh area — where they speak an obscure Latin dialect that’s completely unfamiliar to me — I was so confused, I found myself grunting to my waiter in Croatian.
It’s not just language — the people in each part of Switzerland have their own quirks. For example, in France, people have a distinct formality, with protocol that visitors are expected to follow. The Swiss are known to be a bit aloof, with a focus on orderliness. And, while I actually appreciate those qualities when I’m in those respective countries, when they’re stacked together in French-speaking Switzerland, it feels overly uptight. It often seemed like I could do no right.
Meanwhile, Italian Switzerland — while certainly tamer than Italy proper — also has a dollop of Italian chaos. Usually, super-organized Switzerland is a dream for updating a guidebook. But Lugano kept me on my toes. Rushing around on Saturday night to check out some restaurants (which I knew would be closed on Sunday), I was told by two different restaurateurs, “It’s busy now. Can you come back tomorrow?” When I reminded them they were closed the next day, they’d wink sheepishly and answer my questions. And three separate times, Italian Swiss locals who I was using to update my information brushed aside my questions with, “Well, if it’s in that book, I’m sure it’s correct.” While I appreciate their faith in our book, how do they think it gets to be correct?
Fortunately, some things never change, no matter which language the people speak. Rivella, my favorite Swiss soft drink — which is made from milk serum, tastes like chewable vitamins, and comes in four different flavors — is available nationwide. Over a week, the front seat of my car filled up with (I hate to think of how many) Rivella empties.
It’s always interesting to hear observations from the local tourist industry. Middle Eastern travelers flock to Switzerland. A ticket seller at the boat dock in Lugano said that he had tons of Mideast tourists until a couple of weeks ago. Then Ramadan started…and he’s only seen one Middle Eastern family since (Christians from Egypt). Since Ramadan starts even earlier next year, Swiss hoteliers are predicting a short but very intense spike in demand early in the season.
I had one particularly cow-heavy stretch that combined Switzerland’s best cheeses and milk chocolates. One day I woke up in the town of Gruyeres (famous for its Gruyere cheese), toured two different cheesemaking facilities (with free samples), visited the Broc chocolate factory (more samples), then drove to Appenzell — another town famous for its stinky but delicious cheese. I like to do as the locals do — tea and a big English breakfast in Britain, croissants in France, borscht in Poland — but after a couple of days eating my way through Switzerland’s two cheese capitals, I needed dairy detox.
One highlight was arriving in the cutesy Germanic town of Appenzell on what happened to be one of the two or three days a year that the cows come down from mountain pastures. I made sure to be on main street when the farmer proudly paraded his several dozen cows through the village.