Thursday, 20 October 2016

Visiting Bern, Lucerne, and Mount Titlis with ThinkSwiss

The group photo. Thanks to Tania Humair, Ursula Wyss, and Presence Switzerland.
One aspect of the ThinkSwiss program – the program that brought me to Switzerland – is what the coordinators call the “networking event”. Fairly typical, I think, of exchange programs, the event is a two-day organized excursion with the goal of having participants meet their fellow ThinkSwiss scholars (as we are called), learn some more about the destination country, and get a glimpse of some of Switzerland’s biggest tourist sights.

I had been in Switzerland slightly more than one month when I took the train early one Friday morning to Bern. I was excited to see some of Bern, a city I had (much like Zurich) only ever changed trains in, and simultaneously eager and apprehensive to meet my fellow ThinkSwiss scholars – as one is in such situations.
Pretty buildings in Lucerne.
I had no reason for worry, of course. Everyone present was eager to meet people and I was wrapped up in conversation in no time.

We all had quite a bit in common: by virtue of being there and having gotten this award, it was clear that we were all excellent students, driven and dedicated to what we were doing, and had to have a certain sense of adventure to want to go to a foreign country. Of course, we also had the commonality of (mostly) being North Americans – relieved to finally hear our own language and dialect spoken, a shared understanding of slang, idioms, pop culture and current events references, and common amusement, bemusement, and wonder at things that were strange to us but that Swiss or Europeans more generally would take for granted.
A group of us on Titlis.
There was a further, somewhat unexpected commonality: by far the majority of were undergrads (the scholarship is open to every level of study from undergrad to PhD student, so one would expect a slightly more even distribution of levels of study). Furthermore, most of us (and not just the undergrads) were either just graduated or graduating in the next year, as I am, and faced with the daunting prospect of figuring out our next steps and where we wanted our lives and future careers to lead. Many a conversation over the two days we spent together revolved around these topics.
Pretty shutters.
I was one of the last people to arrive, and once everyone had trickled in we set off. Our first stop was not far from Bern’s main station: the Parliament building. Because yes, one thing that few foreigners know is that the capital of Switzerland is not shiny Geneva, the de facto UN/NGO capital, nor party city Zürich, nor Basel, but quiet, unassuming Bern. (A rather amusing part of the conversation I had up on Stockhorn with the two older Swiss gentlemen revolved aournd this. “The capital of Canada is Montreal, right?” Me, laughing: “Noooo.” Them “Is it Toronto?” Me: “No, but you’re closer. It’s Ottawa.” Them: “Well, do you know the capital of Switzerland, then?” Me, coolly: “It’s Bern.” Them: “Well, you have a point on us there!”).
Up on Titlis.
One of the ideas of the ThinkSwiss program is that we will be ambassadors for research and higher education in Switzerland after returning to North America. To that end, we were taken to the parliament building to learn about Swiss government and relations between the country and our home countries (mostly the US, Canada was neglected a bit in that presentation!), and about research and higher education in Switzerland.
Lucerne in the evening sun!
I found learning about the Swiss system of government really fascinating. Particularly interesting to me is their system of direct democracy, where people vote not only to pick the government, but actually vote directly on most new laws and other major decisions. Also interesting is that the country doesn’t directly have a head of state, but is rather ruled by a council of seven. One of the seven receives the title of “president” (valid for one year, then it rotates on to the next person), but this title is primarily a formality. This title is needed for meeting other heads of state, for instance, but it carries very little added power along with it; the main "additional" power the president has is the tiebreaking vote if a member of the council is absent for some decision.

The person presenting on government also highlighted that Swiss politics are based on compromise and reaching consensus – likely a necessity for a country with four official languages, each in a different region and having distinct culture, history, traditions, and attitudes.
If you guessed Lucerne for this picture in my last post, you were right.
From the parliament hall, we went for lunch at the nearby Park-Café in the Kleine Schanze, a popular park located just down the road from both the government buildings and the main station at the edge of the old town. Then, it was on to a quick tour of Bern’s Old Town…which also happens to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As I’ve mentioned, I like collecting these sites, so I was pretty thrilled.
Two Canadians eating lunch. Thanks Rebecca for the photo!
The tour was by trotti, the weird scooter/bike hybrid the Swiss love. No, seriously, they take these things everywhere, even on mountain trails (albeit wide and fairly even ones). I was skeptical at first, but I’ll admit it was an excellent and convenient way to get around the town. I still prefer my bike, though…

The tour was fairly quick; our guide was knowledgeable and interesting, with all kinds of fascinating anecdotes and tidbits of information, but unfortunately I was already suffering from information overload. When I returned to Bern (something I vowed that day I’d do before I left Switzerland, and finally managed – in typical fashion – on my last full day in the country), I was trying to remember what he’d told us, to no avail. I’d have liked to retain at least a bit, but, well, you can only learn and remember so much at one time.
A fountain Lucerne; Bern has similar ones and is quite famous for them.
The thing I’m kicking myself more even more is not bringing my camera. It was raining hard when we started, and so I didn’t want to risk my camera being out; I also didn’t want to lug my backpack around, so…into storage my camera went. Of course, as it typical for Switzerland, the rain stopped a few minutes into the tour. Thankfully, I did get to remedy the lack of pictures when I returned to the city later, so expect a photo essay on Bern in a few weeks!
The only picture of Bern I took.
Then it was on to another train and off to Lucerne. I was feeling quite tired and exhausted by the time I got off the train, but I could still see that Lucerne is a beautiful city, old building wrapping around its corner of the lake, mountains behind in the distance.
First glimpses of Lucerne. You can't see the mountains here, but I promise they're there!
We had some free time before dinner; someone suggested going to see the lion statue. Though I had no idea what the statue was, I was intrigued and went along. As it turns out, the statue is a war memorial. It’s also quite impressive, since it actually is the statue of a lion, hewn into a rock face. The reflecting pool below makes for great photography, but you have to get past the groups of people first.
The famous lion statue.
We also visited the city’s famous wooden bridge, the Kapellbrücke. It’s famous for a number of things: the oldest covered wooden bridge in Europe, the oldest surviving truss bridge in the world, and its paintings inside the bridge under the roof, a feature not seen on any other similar bridges. The paintings show scenes from the city’s history, though I can’t claim I saw much in them.
I loved all the flowers on the bridge!
The bridge is a symbol for the city and one of its (and according to Wikipedia, the country’s) most popular tourist attractions. It’s a fascinating structure, well worth visiting despite the crowds. 
The bridge and the old town.
Lucrene's old town is worth a visit as well.
I nearly fell asleep at dinner (which was at a pretty decent Italian restaurant with fantastic views, right on the waterfront). I wasn’t the only one, so a small group of us headed back to the bus station immediately after dinner while the rest went exploring further. It had gotten dark while we were at dinner and we admired the light reflecting on the water while I tried to resist the temptation to get my camera out. Then we realized that a night market had been set up beside the bus depot. One after another, we decided to put tiredness aside and go take a look.
Night market on the lake.
The stalls were part of the very unfortunately named, um, Blue Balls Music Festival. I can only hope that that name was a particularly bad case of lost in translation and not deliberate…(Mom, Dad, if you’re reading these, please don’t google what that means…). Names aside, I did enjoy photographing the lights at the festival.
The stage at the festival.
The next day saw us back on a train, this time off to the popular mountain town of Engelberg and from there by gondola up to Mount Titlis.
First glimpses of a cloud-covered Titlis from Engelberg.
Titlis reminded me a lot of Jungfraujoch: a very tourist-y spot up on a mountain, with a viewing platform, an ice cave, the ability to go out onto the glacier, the (arguably) gimmicky activities outside, the mandatory restaurants and souvenir shop…and, amusingly, another popular tourist destination I knew nothing of prior to going there.
Throwing snowballs on the glacier. Thanks Rebecca for the picture!
Personally, I thought Jungfraujoch was more spectacular, but admittedly Titlis is nothing to sneeze at. A visit to Titlis also costs less than half of what a trip up to the Jungfraujoch would (a full-price, round-trip ticket from Zurich to Titlis is roughly 160 francs; the same ticket to Jungfraujoch is 342 Fr at the time of writing, with half-fare cards valid for both).
I mean, I really can't complain.
The first big draw at Titlis is the rotating gondola you take to get up there. It was enormous, and packed, so you pretty well needed the rotation to see anything at all. I did appreciate the changing views, but frankly found the gondola more of a gimmick than anything else. If you were in the middle of the vehicle, you also wouldn’t see much because of its size; with how packed it was the day we were there, moving to the outside if you were in the middle was not an option.
Flying over the glacier in the rotating gondola.
Gondola views, also nothing to sneeze at.
Another big draw of Titlis is the hanging bridge. This one I enjoyed enormously, especially for its photographic possibilities. Somewhat unfortunately, it was very foggy the entire day, with only the occasional break in the clouds. I didn’t mind much, as I had been to Jungfraujoch and really enjoyed shooting in the fog, but I assume it was disappointing for many of the other people. But, well, that’s mountains for you; the weather is changeable and unpredictable no matter the season.
Hanging bridge in the clouds, great fun for a photographer.
More clouds all around.
The third big attraction that’s heavily advertised on Titlis is the Ice Flyer. It’s chairlift that carries you on a brief ride over part of the glacier. It was described to us as a very fast lift/ride, but it’s actually quite slow, and remarkably peaceful.
Selfie on the Ice Flyer, thanks Yipeng!
At the bottom of the lift is the “glacier paradise”, where you can tube or sled down a prepared hill. The line for tubing was too long, so we settled for tobogganing. The hill for that was steep and smooth, one of the fastest I’ve been on, and we all had fun tumbling off the sleds and getting snow in our clothes.
The view down to the glacier paradise from the Ice Flyer.
Lunch was Alpenhörnli again, the meal I’d had on Stockhorn and that Sierra described as “Swiss mac’n’cheese”. After lunch, we took a group picture, and then...that was it, the program was over, and we were free to go our separate ways.

I spent a few more minutes looking around and taking pictures before heading down. I did have to take a break at the halfway station when I saw how beautifully the fog was lying over the lake…

Couldn't resist these views on my down from the mountain.

I met some of the group back at the train station and we went back to Lucerne together; from there, we were all heading in different directions. The Spanish-speakers (two Spaniards and a Puerto Rican) talked me into grabbing a cold beer – back the Blue Balls festival – with them before heading back to Zurich, and then it was completely over.
Before the beer, photo by Rebecca.
This trip, much as I enjoyed it, was a good reminder of why I tend to avoid group tours and prefer independent travel. For one, the pace was far too fast for my taste; I barely saw anything of Bern, though as I mention above I was able to remedy that later, and didn’t see much of Lucerne either. For another, I’m an introvert, and being in a group of people for too long drains me. This is in no way a criticism of the people I met on the trip; on the contrary, meeting my fellow scholars was the highlight of my weekend. I would, later on, meet up with two of them, and I suspect I’ve made at least a few lasting friendships from this trip. However, spending two whole days in a large group the entire time, moving at a fast and intense pace, was incredibly draining, and I came out of the weekend exhausted and only wanting my own bed.

I would end up meeting a friend and going to a quiet concert in Baden instead, but, well, that's the topic for another post.
My favourite view in Lucerne.
Thank you to ThinkSwiss and Presence Switzerland for organizing and sponsoring the weekend, and my fellow scholars for stellar conversation and company!

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