My wife and I lived in Europe three times during my U.S. Air Force career, and we have vacationed there 10 times since. We relish the different foods, cultures, histories and the scenic terrain from Iceland to Greece. Our most recent travel took us high into the Swiss Alps. We've never been more enraptured.
We based out of Zurich, which was a perfect initiation. It is a large city with many museums, parks and restaurants, and it is easy to get around once you learn to use the tram system. The Landesmuseum of Swiss history is a great place to learn about the Swiss people and their proud history. I've never absorbed more information in less time through reading, observing and listening through headphones offered by the multimedia presentations. Nearby, the Kunsthaus art museum is one of the most modern in Europe and offers originals by the greatest artists in history — Monet, Munch, Manet, Rembrandt, Picasso and many others.
We had a sweet visit to the Lindt chocolate factory. We learned all about the history of chocolate, how it is made and why Swiss chocolate is the best in the world. Plus, at the end of the tour we got unlimited free samples to compare the varieties. Yum!
We also visited the old Roman City, a mixture of ancient homes and modern shops and restaurants built on the ruins of what was once an elevated Roman fort. Soldiers based in the strategic fort guarded critical passes through the Alps. From a beautiful park atop the fortress one can now take in the entire city and gaze upon medieval churches and houses, ornate bridges and sailboats floating majestically upon the blue water of nearby Lake Zurich.
In the years since the Roman Empire fell, the inhabitants of the region were just as zealous at guarding their resources and developing their country. The Swiss are known for their fierce neutrality despite wars that raged around them throughout the centuries. That neutrality paid huge dividends as Switzerland largely avoided the terrible suffering and destruction that other European countries experienced after the Renaissance.
In the 1500s, Switzerland's neutrality attracted Europeans who were threatened in their home countries because of their religious beliefs. Many Protestant reformers came to Switzerland to study, organize and publish their works. For instance, the Dutch reformer Erasmus came to Basel, Switzerland, because only there could he publish his Latin translation of the Greek New Testament. Several years later, Martin Luther used Erasmus' Latin translation to produce the first German Bible, allowing ordinary people to read the Bible in their own language. When this happened, nothing could stop the Protestant Reformation as it swept across Europe.
Today, the neutrality of the Swiss nation is largely responsible for its success as a major international banking center. Much of the world's monetary wealth is funneled through Swiss banks, and the Swiss dividends from money management are reflected in every aspect of the nation. There are beautiful parks, efficient transportation systems, elevated worker wages, great medical care and a high standard of living. There is construction everywhere. However, the downside if you are a visitor is that it is one of the most expensive countries in the world.
Connecting flights from Atlanta to Zurich, Switzerland, for Aug. 25-29 range from about $1,000 to $1,400, according to a midweek Google search.
We also visited several other cities that are easily accessible thanks to the many tunnels through the rugged terrain. Bern is the capitol city with beautiful parks, a great zoo and the home to many embassies. It seems everyone wants to be friends with the Swiss. Not only have they acted as peacemakers to end many armed conflicts, but Switzerland is also home of the International Red Cross. It's headquartered in Geneva, where it began in 1864 as an agency to assist soldiers in combat. Since the Swiss were often not participants in European wars, it allowed them to assist both sides with medical and humanitarian support.
Lucerne and its beautiful lake were our next visit. If you don't see Lake Lucerne in this lifetime, you will surely see its shores next to heaven in the next. I've never seen a more majestic setting. The steep mountainsides, dotted with medieval castles and towers, slide right into the lake, and row upon row of Alps surround you with welcoming peacefulness. Cable cars carry visitors to hotels and spas perched high on the cliffs.
Swiss cities are great, but the real reason to visit Switzerland is to experience the Alps. To do that, you should stay in one of many mountain cottages or condos available to rent. We stayed in the small town of Lauderbrunnen nestled beneath the high ridges of Jungfrau, one of the highest Alps. It is a popular ski destination during the winter, but the area is just as magical during the summer. The mountains soar almost straight up from the narrow valley floors. Waterfalls tumble hundreds of feet throughout the region. Hiking trails and gondolas take passengers to higher cabins, playgrounds, restaurants and all kinds of activities from bungee jumping to mountain bike trails to alpine bobsled tracks. In the summer, these bobsleds don't slide on ice but zip down on special stainless-steel tracks that are banked to safely accommodate the high speeds. It is a thrill to zoom down the mountain, and thanks to Swiss engineering, it is safe for children also.
However, the biggest thrills are the incredible views in every direction. Colorful wildflowers, gleaming white glaciers, tumbling waterfalls and herds of cattle with their traditional bells clanging as they peacefully graze on alpine pastures are memories I hope to keep forever.
A visit to Switzerland is exhilarating not only because of its beauty and history, but the Swiss people themselves are a fascinating smorgasbord of humanity. During World War II, the Swiss government feared an invasion from next-door Germany, so they agreed to severely limit the immigration of Jews. They regretted that decision when the world discovered afterward how Jews suffered under the Nazis.
Subsequently, the government enacted a very liberal immigration policy, and it is reflected today. Riding the public transportation systems, visiting museums and walking around the city one sees every culture of the world represented — European, Asian, African, Indian, Middle Eastern, South American and a few of us oddballs from the United States. Everyone seems comfortable with who they are and who their neighbor is.
Switzerland is truly a cultural melting pot. Maybe that's why their cheese and chocolate fondue melting pots are so great too. They know how to combine the right stuff to make the world a better place.
Roger Smith, a local author, is a frequent contributor to the Times Free Press.
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