My love affair with the Swiss railroad

Swiss train travel

Fast, fun and always on time, trains are the perfect way to travel in Switzerland.

Can you love a railway? If it’s possible, then I truly do. The Swiss train system embodies everything I appreciate about Switzerland: efficient, reliable, safe, accessible, adventurous and oh-so-family friendly. Now I admit it is also very Swiss in one other way: it is not cheap. But for our family, I can say that we easily got our money’s worth. A pass for unlimited travel for 30 days, which also allowed both kids to ride for free, meant that we could hop on a train simply because we felt like it or because a town on the map had an interesting name. And it covered more than trains. Every bus route was covered as well and any ferry or funicular we happened upon was covered as well. The train pass also gave us free or reduced admission to most museums and historical attractions.

Swiss train schedule

When you get to the station, just look up to find the big board with the most up-to-date information.

And for me, trains are just a great way to travel. The schedules are easy to use (and there’s an app, so you can plan your travel on the fly), there are no security lines, unexpected delays or gridlock. You get to see the countryside without the stress of looking for your exit or a parking spot. There is plenty of leg room, no one has a dreaded middle seat, and the bathrooms range from acceptable to immaculate. (For extra points, on some of the trains, the bathrooms are decorated to look like better bathrooms! Wallpaper murals make you feel like you are in an alpine outhouse with a view of the mountains or even a nice granny’s WC, complete with a vase of flowers and lace curtains.)

Swiss train bathroom

Bathrooms feature murals to help you forget–at least for a moment–that you’re in a tiny, public, moving restroom.

But here is the real kicker, and why I think the train pass is worth every penny. Almost every major train route has a “family zone” car on it. Which means all the people with little kids congregate onto the one car and no one cares if your kid if loud or cranky or super social or whatever. Your kid might even make some new friends and you might too! And best of all, on the popular long-haul routes the family zone is the top floor or a double-decker car and IT HAS A PLAYGROUND! Let me repeat: A PLAYGROUND ON A TRAIN!

Playground on the Switzerland train

Go ahead and let ’em run. The playground on the upper level of the train car will keep kids entertained on long-haul journeys.

With a slide, small climbing area, tunnel, play boat and dock, little kids will be able to burn off energy in a safe and enclosed area without bothering anyone else. There are also tables with board games printed on them for older kids and more space for stroller parking on the floor below. Even if your kid doesn’t run around the entire trip, just having the peace of mind that they can get up and move around whenever they wish is huge.

Train travel for kids in Switzerland

A hot dog and a window seat. What more could a kid ask for?

When it comes to family travel, the trains make Switzerland a great choice for people who want to get the very most out of their European visit. Merci vilmal Switzerland!

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On the border: Biel/Bienne

Biel/Bienne old town

Certainly one of the most interesting things about Switzerland is how the country is segmented into sections not only by geography, but by language and culture as well. When these regions meet up, the result can be fascinating.

German and French culture intermingle in Biel/Bienne

In Biel/Bienne, you can choose German or French food as the mood strikes you. The city is equally divided by both language and culture.

We hopped on the train to Biel/Bienne, a city that is so perfectly divided between French and German that it is officially referred to by both versions of its name. A small city known for watch-making (80s flashback alert: We strolled right past the headquarters for Swatch!) Biel/Bienne has a lovely lakefront, abundant shopping and a charming old town.

Balcony detail in Biel/Bienne

Around every corner of the Old Town, ornate balconies cast intricate shadows on the street below.

The city was easy to navigate once we got the hang of it, making it a great family outing. Everything radiates away from the main train station: First the modern shops, located on many pedestrian-only roads and full of buskers. We heard classical violinists, a four-piece horn band, guitarists, and a guy with an accordion. Then we crossed the street into old town, full of open-by-appointment antique and collectable shops, restaurants and bookstores. There was a small outdoor market underway when we were there (hooray!) so we picked up some snacks and walked around. The entire city has signage in both German and French and most residents speak both, plus English, so we were well-covered no matter who we encountered.

Raspberries from Biel/Bienne

The biggest, sweetest raspberries I’ve ever had. A perfect walking-around-town snack!

From old town we followed the main canal through the city until it ended at Lake Biel/Bienne. The waterfront has everything you could ask for: large dinner cruise boats, a swimming beach, playground, marina, snack bars, walking paths, wide lawns for picnics or sunbathing, foot bridges and swans. Lots of swans.

On the shore of Lake Biel

See that Swan in the background? He’s already spotted his mark and is ready to make his move.

While they might look all pristine and romantic, these are really just big ducks who are used to being fed so if you happen to have some croissant crumbs on your shirt or a pretzel in your hand, be warned. These guys mean business.

Never on a Sunday

You can live in the most exotic, exciting place in the world, but eventually, you have to do your laundry.

One of the wonderful things about taking an extended vacation is that you leave vacation-mode and eventually just start living normal life, but in a foreign place. After a while, our rotation of clothes couldn’t bear one more wearing, so it was time for laundry. Our bed & breakfast owner graciously allowed us to use her washer and dryer during our stay and she gave me a short tutorial when we arrived.

So on Sunday morning I put the first load in and we headed out for a day of exploring. When we returned in the early evening, I stopped in the laundry room before going up to our flat. I moved the clothes into the dryer and tried to remember which buttons were the right ones. Eventually I deciphered enough to program one cycle, hit the “start” button and left.

When I came back down an hour later, I saw that the dryer was off, but the timer was paused at about 45 minutes. “Must have hit the wrong button,” I thought. Perhaps I used a delayed start cycle? I hit the “start” button again and went back upstairs.

I returned in 45 minutes to see that the dryer had paused again, this time at the 23 minute mark. “I am really bad at this,” I thought. “How is this not working?” Restarted it one more time and then went to bed.

The next morning, I met our innkeeper in the hallway. “I restarted the dryer for you this morning. I paused it last night because of the noise.”

Oops.

I didn’t realize the seriousness of “day of rest” in Switzerland. In the U.S., Sunday is catch-up day for me. Errands, lawn work, laundry, cleaning and getting everything organized for the week ahead. In Switzerland and many other parts of Europe, Sunday is for worship, bike rides and family meals. Running appliances like washers and vacuums is frowned upon and in many communities using your lawn mower, washing your car, dropping off your recycling and even hanging your laundry outside on the line on Sunday is actually illegal.

And almost everything is also closed on Sunday, including drug stores, grocery stores, many restaurants–basically it’s impossible to buy things.

So armed with this new knowledge, we tried to plan our week so we could be Swiss on Sundays and enjoy family time together without any thought to chores. Not so easy, but a worthwhile practice we may try to adopt at home.

To market, to market….

Market day in Solothurn Switzerland

The market in Solothurn, Switzerland is held every Wednesday and Saturday morning. Twice a week seems typical in Europe of towns of this size, with larger cities having open-air markets every day and small villages having a few stands pop up once a week.

Each booth, cart, wagon, card table and stall seems to specialize in only one or two items: Berries, olives, breads, fish, flowers, vegetables, cheese…we tried to do as much of our grocery shopping here as we could.

Cherries for sale at the Solothurn market

We were there during cherry season. Hurray!

We even found a few things that we would not be able to enjoy at home. One farmer’s booth featured raw, unpasteurized whole milk. Raw milk is illegal where we live, and though there is a lively black market for it, I had never tried it. It did taste different. Not better of worse, but there is certainly a distinction.

Farm-fresh milk in Solothurn

Shhhh don’t tell anyone. This raw milk is illegal in much of the U.S. Milk is often sold unrefrigerated in Europe, so the farmer sternly us to told us to keep this milk cold and drink it within a few days. No problem there!

The market was a great slice of local life and helped us get into the rhythm of the town. Everyone in the area seems to be shopping–tattooed couples pushing strollers, old men in crisply ironed shirts, groups of friends carrying baskets of produce while balancing a coffee–the streets were bustling and we were happy to blend in for a change.

Mushrooms at the Solothurn market

The fungus among us. Mushrooms of all types and flavors.

Mystery vegetable at the market

So I assume “peperoni” refers to the shape? I think this is a parsnip. Or a radish. Or maybe a turnip….

 

 

The everyday exotic: McDonald’s

“Come into this McDonald’s quick,” said Ken. Huh? I understand the menu is different in other countries, but we don’t eat at McDonald’s at home, so what do I care about a McDonald’s in Switzerland? Then I saw the McCafe section of the restaurant. Ohhhh.

McCafe desserts in Switzerland

Macarons? Cakes and tarts? IN A MCDONALD’S?

Leather chairs, soft lighting, coffee in real cups, desserts that were galaxies away from the “apple pie” in a box that I remember.

McCafe coffee and pastries

Not a bad spot to pull out the old laptop….

I learned that the McCafe shops are quite popular, and I can see why. It looked like a fancier version of Starbucks. Goes against all that I know about food and eating in the States, but for a cup of java in Olten, Switzerland, it would certainly do.

orchids in McDonald's in Switzerland

Orchids next to the cash register were a nice touch….

The Kneipp cure: water and walking

 

Kneipp trail near Solothurn, Switzerland

A donation of 2 Swiss Francs is a small price to pay for the unique experience of a Kneipp trail.

When I was researching our trip to Switzerland, I found many mentions of Kneipp applications, including spas, nature trails and pools. I was confused. Kneipp is also a popular brand of herbal wellness and bath products, but both the bath oil and the nature trails go back to the philosophies of one man.

Sebastian Kneipp

A priest from the mid-1800s, Sebastian Kneipp was looking for ways to cure his tuberculosis and found a “water cure” that he believed healed him. He created a system of wellness that focuses on diet, exercise, hydrotherapy and other holistic methods. All all over Europe, you can find products and places dedicated to his beliefs.

Off with your shoes!

I really wanted to find one of the “barefoot trails” I had read about, and discovered one place, not far from our home base of Solothurn. The idea is simple: Follow a small path while walking barefoot. The idea is that you will experience various sensations and textures, give your feet a massage, improve circulation, and enhance the benefits of the hydrotherapy that the Kneipp water pools provide.

Walking on broken glass

There were several sections of various texture, temperature, and moisture to experience. It started with pea gravel, cool and moist and moved to small stones, warm and smooth.

Kneipp barefoot trail

Kick off your shoes, rinse off your feet, and hit the Kneipp trail.

Then there was a section of wood slats, followed by wood chips which also had signs for different types of stretching to add to the walking, and then an area of soft grasses.

The Kneipp barefoot path makes walking a sensory experience

The varying textures and temperatures of the path invite you to slow down and enjoy the sensation.

There were also covered sections of the path where you could lift up the lid and walk through. One featured a knee-deep pit of pea-sized clay balls. They felt amazing, but I was not prepared to sink down so far!

A section of clay balls on the barefoot Kneipp trail

These crazy little balls of clay gave a great foot massage–and temporarily stained my feet and legs with a henna-colored polka dot pattern.

The next one was small pieces of crushed glass, which looked jagged but felt smooth, kind of like sea glass.

Broken glass as part of the Kneipp barefoot trail

Walking across broken glass (with feet stained from the clay of the previous section) made me feel like a total bad-ass.

The final dip

At the end, I walked through the traditional Kneipp foot bath. An L-shaped wading pool with a railing down the middle, the idea is to walk through the cold water–meant to revitalize your legs–and then dry them off, put on warm socks, and be on your way. The water was really cold. I think I stepped through much faster than I was supposed to. I admit after I was done, I really did feel good: refreshed and full of energy. We continued on a hike up the hills afterward and my feet thanked me the entire time.

Kneipp foot bath

A polar plunge from the knee down. This water was…bracing.

I will certainly be searching out Kneipp facilities in the future–and I think the barefoot path could easily be created at home. Perhaps a little path in the backyard or at the cabin….

 

A grey day in Zurich

Zurich clock tower

There is no excuse for being late in Switzerland!

When the weather won’t cooperate for another hiking day, that just means it’s time to take in the city sights. Ken has a former colleague who is living in Zurich, so we jumped on the train and headed over to meet him for the afternoon. Though we visited Switzerland last year, we never made it to Zurich, since we spent the majority of our time in the French-speaking western section of the country. In my mind, Zurich was a bit intimidating and imposing. As the epicenter of so much international business and finance, I imagined the entire city like a large bank: cold, shiny and austere. I was completely wrong.

boys in Zurich park

Don’t let the sweet faces fool you. Those boys are filling up the city-provided dog-poo bags with water and whipping them at each other in a make-shift water balloon fight.

Of course, in one afternoon, we only saw a small glimpse of the city, but what we were able to take in was full of charm, history and friendly faces. Our friend David met us at the train station and took us on a short walk through an older section of the city toward one of his favorite restaurants. walking through Zurich The pizza place seemed like a hub of expats, full of young families and groups of friends. Everyone was chatting in various languages, but the wait staff addressed each table in English first, then switched to any number of languages, depending on the response. The pizza was amazing. A crust that was almost phyllo-dough like, topped with all sorts of ingredients, but without a tomato sauce base. Mine was feta, ricotta, honey and rosemary. So delicious! We finished our meal with cafe creme, just right for a drizzly day.

pizza in Zurich

Honey, rosemary and feta pizza. Accompanied by croissants, of course.

But no afternoon out is complete without ice cream, so we walked over to a fro-yo shop. Tangy frozen yogurt with your choice of toppings and a sofa to sit on to watch the world go by–a great way to spend the day. Big thanks to David for being a wonderful Zurich host!

frozen yogurt from I Love Leo in Zurich

Some people like candied nuts, some people like chocolate cookies, and some people like fresh berries.

 

Bring on the Bratwurst! The neighborhood festival

The lovely and generous Eva, who runs the bed and breakfast where we are staying, invited us to a small festival at her church in Zuchwil, just down the road.

Zuchwil, Switzerland church festival

Though small, the congregation put on a great spread.

There was a buffet table with awesome sausages, potato salad and sides for a donation of a few Swiss Francs. We had to wait for the grill to finish, but it was well worth it.

dinner in Zuchwil, Switzerland

Hurry up grill! Bring on those bratwursts!

There was also a tent with, what I think were cocktails, and tables set up with bake-sale goodies. It was hard to pick, but we landed on two chocolate-and-hazelnut cupcakes that did not disappoint.

Swiss bake sale table in Zuchwil

You can’t make a bad choice at the bake sale table–and you don’t need to speak German. Just point and hand over your money.

Unfortunately, we missed Eva’s performance in the early evening when she and a group were singing gospel songs, but we did make it there in time for this. Not your standard church music program, but it made my night.

The everyday exotic: a stop at IKEA

After a rainy day doing inside things, we jumped on the train for a change of pace…but ended up somewhere very familiar: IKEA. Lame place to spend time during a European vacation. Maybe, but we had a pretty good time for reasons that are not available in the American IKEA.

IKEA chairs in Switzerland

The familiar “wall of chairs” greeted us as we took the escalator upstairs.

We thought it would also be an opportunity to pick us a few small items for the flat: toys, washcloths (not common in Europe) and maybe some things from the grocery. We figured while we were there, E could play and burn some energy and we could have an inexpensive dinner as well.

IKEA children's department

Setting up for a proper IKEA picnic.

It seems many families had the same idea. E spent about 30 minutes just playing with the pretend kitchens and workbenches. Other kids also drifted in, and soon there was a full-blown toddler pretend picnic, with E pouring everyone many cups of coffee and other kids making sandwiches.

While all that was happening, Ken had wandered away in search of other items. I knew something unusual had happened when he returned 20 minutes later SMILING. This man, (and usually me, for that matter) never has a smile while at IKEA. What was going on? Then I saw it: in his hand, was a beer. “I stopped at the snack bar, ” he told me excitedly. “They had a deal. I got two hot dogs and this beer for 4 Swiss Francs!”

IKEA beer

Now THIS could improve the shopping experience.

IKEA has beer? “They have wine too,” he told me, “in the restaurant.” We headed over to see this wonderment of civilized living and found a restaurant full of relaxed parents, happy children and organic food.

IKEA restaurant

Beer? Wine? Energy drinks? Everything a person needs to make it through a trip to IKEA.

So yes, we didn’t really immerse ourselves in Swiss culture this day. But while we were shopping, the rain stopped. We had a tasty, inexpensive meal, and in typical Swiss fashion, we did find ourselves next to a farm field and grazing cows–even next to an IKEA.