Driving route - Loop from Zurich.
Switzerland, the forerunner of the tourism industry, developed by English tourists in the 19th century, a bit too obvious a destination where everyone eventually has to go. Will it live up to its stature, particularly for the jaded traveler? Will it just be a land of pretty picture postcards? Or will it have any surprises in store? Time to get some answers.
Touring Switzerland in April has its advantages. The winter ski season is over and the summer season is yet to begin, sparing the traveler the crowds. On the flipside, the saddle season is exploited for much needed maintenance of the infrastructure. As long is one is aware and prepared to make adjustments based on what's available, there is plenty to do and see.
After just an evening ramble in Zurich and armed with a Swiss Half Fare travel card each, we hightailed it Luzern for a lakeside look-see. Its old town (cobblestone streets, picturesque squares, historic houses, covered bridges - the works) provided a perfect setting for us to enjoy decadent rosti (fried potatoes and cheese) dinners and accompanying libations. In the absence of a drone camera or helicopter ride, a cable car ride up Mt. Pilatus was necessary to take in the entire Luzern lake. A side-trip to Fort Furigen ensured we maintain our street cred as serious travelers. For that same reason we eschewed the highly recommended boat cruise on the lake.
The Swiss attention to detail was on full display on the way to Interlaken when a carefully coordinated switch from train, to bus bridge and back to another train was effected with nary a moment's delay to the overall schedule. Picture postcard views kept our eyes glued to the window for the duration of the trip to Lauterbrunnen. The feast for the senses continued through the next couple of days as we explored the Lauterbrunnen Valley and hiked the mountain trails above the valley (Grutschalp, Murren, Gimmelwald) to squint at Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau from every angle possible. The train ride up to Jungfraujoch (cloudy at the top, oh well!) was spectacular notwithstanding the kitchy exhibits (Alpine Sensation, Ice Palace) dreamt up by some marketing executive who felt that visitors need a choice of diversions at 11,000ft. besides the dramatic natural landscape.
In the few hours that we spent in Bern on the way back to Zurich, we amused ourselves playing the game 'find the bear'. The bear theme is repeated throughout the city; in fountain figures, at the clock tower, flags and facade decoration.
Liechtenstein is one of only two countries in the world that are doubly land-locked. They are entirely surrounded by landlocked countries.
Uzbekistan is the other. It is bordered by Switzerland to its west and south and by Austria to its east in a triangular shape. The western border is marked by the Rhine river and is 25 km long (N-S). The rest of the borders are sharp alpine mountain ridges shared with these two neighbours.
Other curious facts about Liechtenstein: It has no airport. The closest big airport is the one in Zurich about 60 miles away. It does have a helipad. There are 4 train stations that are served by Austrian Railways as part of the route to Switzerland. Long distance (Euro City) trains do pass through but don't stop within the country. Switzerland runs a bus service connecting to its hubs. Liechtenstein is not a EU member but participates in the Schengen and European Economic areas. It has a customs and monetary union with Switzerland. There has been no border control between the two countries since 1923. Roman Catholicism is the official religion. And finally, there are more corporations in Liechtenstein than there are citizens!
We entered the Principality of Liechtenstein at Balzers and headed straight for the hills. No, we weren't trying to escape the Landespolizei (composed of 91 officers and 34 civilian staff). We were merely looking to gain altitude and the town of Triesenberg on the way to Vaduz provided convenient vista points overlooking the Rhine, which is also coterminus with the border with Switzerland.
Having had our fill of the view (and coffee) we were ready to call it quits, but not before we parted with a few Euros at the Post Office to get our passports stamped. Next stop - Vaduz. After a brief walk about, minutes of straining our necks to view the hill-top Schloss and one more egg-and-rosti lunch, we decided we had seen enough to add Liechtenstein to the list of countries visited without shame or stigma.
Is there anything to Austria besides Vienna, Salzburg, Innsbruck, Graz and Linz? What if you enter from the west by motor car and are restricted by time only to explore the western regions? Time to find out!
Arlberg is a massif between Vorarlberg and Tyrol in Austria. The Arlberg Pass is the main connection between Lake Constance in Vorarlberg and Innsbruck in Tyrol. The motorway coming from Lake of Constance ends in Bludenz and continues then with a toll road under the Arlberg mountains through lots of tunnels till Landeck and then continuing further east to Innsbruck.
The area is rich with opportunities for skiing and ski clubs have existed since the early 20th century. With the rise of motor traffic, the old road was no longer sufficient to meet motorist demands, leading to the construction of a series of tunnels that connect Bludenz with the eastern towns and cities. The Arlberg Road Tunnel, the longest (14km) one carries the S16 Arlberg Schnellstraße under the Arlberg massif from Tyrol to Vorarlberg. We made quick work of the tunnel from Bludenz to Landeck and then reversed our route on the "old" alpine pass road to enjoy the views of the Arlberg mountains and the picturesque towns that nestle at its base.
Staying on the scenic road and avoiding the S16 tunnel meant constantly tricking Google GPS with intermediate destinations. It obstinately wanted to lead us to the "fastest route" and we had to work hard to avoid that. The reward - being able to detours up and into small towns - Pettneu am Arlberg, St. Jakob am Arlberg and Sankt Anton am Arlberg - all framed by snow-capped mountains.
The road climbed higher as we crossed St Cristhoph and route 198 tracked north to Zürs. The mountainside here was blanketed in avalanche breaks and several hundreds of kms of ski trails connect the towns. This is a wonderland for skiers who get to enjoy the luxurious huts on the mountains and the towns on the lower elevations. Being a ski town, Zürs was completely deserted during this saddle month and this made our drive through it surreal. As the road was closed beyond Zürs, we retraced back to Stuben where panoramic views and a series of tight switchbacks awaited us in the evening light.
On the drive back east towards Landeck, Pettneu am Arlberg looked even more beautiful with the sun behind our backs. We were delighted to find some food and nice Austrian hospitality. But things were closing fast and we were busy googling up lodging whenever we got to a town with data connection. Our day finally came to an end at a guesthouse in Imst where a friendly hostess led us up to our rooms just as the light was fading.
Deutsche Alpenstrasse - Schönau to Lindau
We crossed into Deutschland at Lermoos. It is essentially Lower Bavaria where the Alps bleed into Germany. At the broder, the B187 in Austria becomes B23 in Germany. Zugspitze (2962m/9718 ft) the highest point in Germany, located on the ridge right at the border was just a few km away, but the cloudy sky meant no views so we decided to skip it and hit the Alpenstrasse.
The Deutsche Alpenstrasse is the oldest touring road in Germany. It was first mentioned in 1879 - in the publication of a historical travel log from 1858 by the Bavarian King Maximillian II (1811-1864). His journey along the route, and attractions seen, were in large part the same as today. It is the cultural equivalent of the Pacific Coast Highway in California with its associations with top-down motoring.
We would roughly follow this route for the next 2 days from Ettal, proceeding westwards to Lindau with the occasional detours to nearby attractions. Interestingly, we connected to the Alpenstrasse through the Fern Pass which is on the centuries old salt trade route in the region when the Arlberg Pass was only a mule track and was not considered suitable.
The sprawling Benedictine monastery Ettal was founded in 1330 by Emperor Ludwig the Bavarian as a redemption of a vow for his safe return to Bavaria. Lavish interior decoration and ceiling fresco which thematizes the Benedictine heaven are a testament to it place in history. In 1710 , the Ettal Monastery functioned as a Knights' Academy and was one of the most important high schools of the time.
The compact Schloss Linderhof was the first of two Ludwig II castles we would visit. The fact that it was built just for one person who also wanted to be alone as much as possible can be seen in the size of the rooms and the unique "Tischleindeckdich" food elevator by which a dishes could be laide out on the table in the kitchen and hoisted into the dining room! Intended to model an English landscape garden, the exterior is dotted with fountains, statues and flowerbeds and a pavilion.
Our next stop, Oberammergau is known for its Lüftlmalerei - frescoes of traditional Bavarian themes that adorn the exteriors of homes and public buildings. It is also famous for its woodcarvers and the 380 year tradition of Passion Plays. Further north, Wieskirche, or the Pilgrim Church of Wies (UNESCO World Heritage Site) is a masterpiece of Bavarian Rococo - exuberant, colourful and joyful.
We continued on the Alpenstrasse in Allgau towards Schwangau, the location of the two star Ludwig castles - Hohenschwangau, his boyhood home and Neuschwanstein his pet project. Ludwig II became king in 1864. Two years later he was forced to accept defeat at the hands of Prussia. No longer a sovereign ruler, he created his own alternative world, in which he could live like a king of the Middle Ages. Our encounters with the personality of Ludwig II through the two castles he built touched us deeply. We felt that he did not deserve to be termed 'mad' just because he was obsessed with building castles and outdoing all previous standards of opulence. His passion for Wagner's operas and folklore, the mystery surrounding his untimely death all added to the aura that we found irresistible.
The scenic drive continued through Oberjoch,Bad Oberdorf/Bad Hindelang, Immenstadt to Lindau, an old town jutting into Lake Constance. The Alte Stadt with its pretty pedestrian zone was an excellent place to strech ones legs after a long drive. Back into Switzerland (via Bregenz in Austria), our last stop was St. Gallen Abbey, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, the signs for which we fortuituously noticed on the freeway and gleefully took the exit.
Towns: Garmisch, Kloster Ettal, Schloss Linderhof, Oberammergau, Steingaden, Schloss Neuschwanstein, Nesselwang, Oberjoch, Immenstadt, Lindau
Even with all the easy unmarked or unmanned borders between countries in Western Europe, there are still a few instances where they do present obstacles to the perfect travel plan. In an ideal world, we would have chosen to hire a one way rental car from Zurich to Munich, which would have saved us a few hours which we could have spent doing something else. Like what? Maybe a few extra hours in Munich to see a different side of the city in a different time of day. But it is still not an ideal world and the option of the one way rental is either not offered at all or comes with a prohibitively high surcharge.
At one point in our Allgau explorations we were just a couple of hour aways from Munich. But we had to travel west to return our car at Zurich and then take a 4 hour train ride retracing our path for the most part. But we got the benefit of visiting another WHS site (St. Gallen). But we told you that story already!
We are contradicting ourselves celebrating border crossings with selfies and adding to our lists while bemoaning the minor inconveniences. So, instead of asking ourselves whether we have enough time to see a place, we invert the question. How much of this place can we see with the remaining time left in our itinerary?
What can one do in Munich on a Saturday in April? With warm weather that brings out the locals to the parks and watering holes? Will we chase the bastions of the counter reformation that Catholic Bavaria mounted to counter northern heresies? Or the more recent events of the 20th century? Or ignore all that and experience a contemporary world city?