Towards the beginning of our time in Copenhagen, my friend Emily and I met two Swiss travelers who had, like us, recently arrived in the city. After the novelty of two American girls wore off and the requisite questions about politics dried up, we talking about the places we’ve been and the long list of places to go. When asked if we’d ever been to Switzerland, Emily and I sheepishly looked at each other and shrugged. If you count a layover in Zurich on our flight from Boston to Copenhagen, then sure! The number of places you’ve ‘traveled’ tends to become much longer if you fudge the truth and start to count airport lounges. Of course, as one comes to learn, wandering aimlessly around a terminal for two hours hardly qualifies as a cultural experience, no matter how interesting said airport may be.
After explaining the technicalities to our new Swiss friends, we were met with mock outrage and not-so-subtle insistence that Switzerland is the greatest country in the world, and that we ~must~ make a point to visit before the semester was over.
And make a point we did. In fact, you could call the weekend spent in Switzerland a last hurrah of sorts before our semester came to a premature end.
I know when I look back on these past few months, it’ll be intrinsically linked to COVID-19. Whoever said ‘may you live in interesting times’ wasn’t kidding– already it’s hard to imagine how the definition of ‘normal’ will be rewritten. Back in the early spring, no one could have anticipated the impact the pandemic would have on the world as we knew it. My friends and I had been keeping loose tabs on the developments from January onwards, but the situation became much more dire during our trip to Brussels. It was all we could seem to talk about, and as my college friends in other programs began to get sent home, my Copenhagen friends couldn’t help but feel that our program would soon meet the same fate.
Sitting in a dimly lit cafe, Emily and I booked our tickets to Switzerland on a whim. We had the sinking feeling the weekend might be our last opportunity to travel while studying abroad. As we began to accept that the trips with new friends we’d be dreaming for weeks likely wouldn’t happen, Emily and I made a pact: we were going to make the most of every moment during our trip to Switzerland.
Switzerland did not disappoint.
With so many beautiful places in Switzerland to visit (but unfortunately for me, no skis) we decided to head to Interlaken. Right off the bat, Emily and I realized English is not nearly as commonplace in Switzerland as it is in Copenhagen, especially in the smaller towns. Buying the train and bus tickets was a little daunting, especially as we tried to make sure we weren’t being tricked into paying more, but we finally managed to figure out which platform and direction we needed to head to in order to reach our hotel.
The train ride was stunning, but Emily and I spent a majority of it sitting on the floor of one of the transition cabs due to how crowded it was. Even though the seats weren’t exactly, well, seats, the train ride ended up being one of my favorite parts of our incredible trip. I didn’t realize how much I missed thick pine forests and mountains, similar to the ones found in Upstate New York, until our train was weaving through dense valleys and slopes. It felt like we were riding on the Polar Express, but little did we know that the best was yet to come.
Out train stopped in the beautiful town of Thun, where we boarded a bus that would take us to our hotel. I had found a stunning hotel located right in between Thun and Interlaken in the tiny hamlet of Gunten, which may just be my favorite town in the world. We’d decided to do something a little different than other trips and stay outside of the main town in order to get a more authentic experience. I am beyond grateful we made that decision. The location was perfect, an easy twenty minute bus ride from both Thun and Interlaken, and the hotel we stayed at was stunning.
We enjoyed the views of our hotel and the incredible hotel restaurant the first night, eager to relax after a long day of travel and looking forward to the adventures of tomorrow.
After hopping on the bus for one of the most beautiful bus rides I’ve ever had (infinitely better than the ride from the train station to my stop in Horsholm back in Denmark), we got off at the last stop in Interlaken.
If I can impart any travel advice from what I’ve learned this semester, it’s to embrace spontaneity whenever possible. You never know where you might end up, and oftentimes what you discover is better than anything you could have anticipated. After all, most of the fun is in the journey, isn’t it?
Emily and I walked all over Interlaken, from the tip of one lake to the other. We were terrified to miss out on any of the views. We wandered into old churches, popped into chocolate shops for gifts (and a sample here and there) and through all of the bridges and waterways. We watched hang gliders float through the sky and land in the city square and skydivers jump from planes. Surrounded by the tallest and most stunning mountains I’ve ever seen, we we couldn’t get over how lucky we were for such a perfect day.
Had we one or two more days to spend, we would’ve spent a day going on a long hike or traveling to Grindelwald to experience another part of Switzerland.If you ever get the chance to go, I cannot recommend this area (and the town of Gunten for a visit) enough!
That night, the hotel restaurant was full so we made our way into the tiny town of Gunten. Mostly traditional ski homes were perched on the mountainside and overlooking Lake Thun. With no restaurant in sight, we were beginning to hatch a plan to ration our chocolate for the night. However, we stumbled across a small restaurant (cash only!) filled with locals and no English menu in sight. Embracing our ethos of spontaneity for the trip, Emily and I headed in.
Like most accidental discoveries, our minimal expectations were wildly exceeded. The waitress was incredibly welcoming and the local patrons were fascinated by the two young American women who found their little haven. It wasn’t perfect– after thinking I ordered a fancy chicken and vegetable dish, imagine my surprise when a plate of chicken nuggets and a basket of fries arrived (much to the amusement of everyone else in the room)– but that’s what made it such an incredible experience, and one I wouldn’t trade for anything.
Emily and I kept telling each other that we couldn’t help but smile the whole trip, that’s how happy Switzerland made us feel. Surrounded by natural beauty and a genuine appreciation for everything we saw, our trip to Switzerland made me feel so grateful for all of the experiences I’ve had, the places I’ve been, and the people I met.
This gratitude came at the time during my semester abroad when I needed it most. Things were beginning to look dire and the future uncertain, but I was granted this little weekend full of wonder and appreciation. It reminded me that good days will continue to come, and the comfort that they will happen when least expected.
Though bittersweet, Switzerland gave me some of my most cherished memories in Europe, ones that will continue to shape my outlook and that I’ll hold dear for years to come.