It had been a short eleven days traveling through Europe, but adventures aplenty were had. We had flown across a massive ocean. We took a high-speed rail through the French countryside. In crowded metros, we zoomed through the bustling cities of Paris and Brussels. Walking, there was plenty of; even a little running with our baggage in tow as we hopped from train to train. We squeezed into our host’s van and ferried across frigid waters in Amsterdam. There was even a little time to get lost on the train in Germany. Now, for me at least, my Eurail ticket was filling up, and there were a dwindling number of opportunities to see rural homes and cityscapes rush past large glass windows as we sat on cushy seats of patterned fabric.
Our trip had food and drink; we did everything that is expected of tourists traveling through Europe. We sipped red wines in France. Trappist beers filled our mugs in Brussels. Bubbly champagne is not the first thing you might associate with Amsterdam, but it was New Year’s (and we also ordered a couple of Heinekens to really get into the Dutch spirit). In Germany, weissbier was the drink of choice. And of course, we tasted cheesy toasted croque-monsieur; slimy escargot swimming in broth; fries topped with meat and gravy; sweet waffles with a perfect golden-brown crunch on the outside; and brats with a generous side of sauerkraut. Again, my time in Europe, my time to be exposed to these new tastes and smells, was almost up. We had one more stop on our jaunt on this far-away continent. After heading west, then north, then east, then south, we were finally back to our place of arrival: we were in Zurich again.
It was dark by the time we arrived to our hotel. Despite making the most of our situation, our minor mistake in Germany and subsequent day-long train ride had us exhausted. It felt good to be somewhere intentionally, and instead of a delicious Swiss meal and white tablecloths, we chose microwave noodles and a comfy bed for dinner that night. White wine washed down the $2 meal. We started our next day early. Exploring Switzerland couldn’t wait. So many quaint little villages with history told by old stone structures constituted the tiny country, but we only had time to visit one. Proximity and cost were major players in our decision-making; we were headed to the small town of Lucerne.
Breakfast was a quick stop into a local market; fresh pastries stuffed with gooey fresh fruit washed down with a giant carton of chocolate milk made a delicious and quick meal as we rushed to board our train. Compared to our previous trips, which crossed borders and spanned entire countries, the train ride to Lucerne was short and pleasant. The Swiss alps came into view in the foggy horizon as we left the main hub in Zurich. A couple of small towns with picturesque brick homes topped by steep wooden roofs covered in snow passed by the train windows as we traveled through Switzerland. Pristine placid lakes, probably as frigid as the white powder on their banks, and bare trees complemented the towering Swiss mountain landscape in between the little villages.
Finally, we arrived in Lucerne. There were no Eiffel Tower-esque landmarks in Lucerene; no Arc de Triomphe with ornate carvings gilded by the ambient light; no Atomium-like structures left over from an optimistic generation decades earlier; no canals and locks from unorthodox and unintentionally marvelous city planning; and no Third Reich walking tours that highlighted the rise to power of an unquestionably evil fascist dictator. Lucerne was simple but picturesque with buildings reminiscent of small castles, a mountain lake with the Swiss Alps in the horizon, and little shops for souvenirs and clothes and, of course, chocolate. We were in and out of a handful of chocolate shops, pressing our faces almost right up to the glass to see the truffles and chocolate bark that were so carefully laid out in rows and stacked neatly in piles. Nuts and caramel and nougat were hiding under layers of rich Swiss chocolate. It started sprinkling a bit when we arrived, and so these little chocolate shops were naturally the best places for a little shelter.
Lucerne was wonderful. Even though there weren’t many typical tourist-y attractions, we found enjoyment learning about the oldest covered wooden bridge in Europe, window shopping candy shops and jewelry stores, and taking in the view of the snow-covered stone buildings. After a few hours of shopping and walking, we eagerly hopped back on the train to Zurich. If there is one thing you have to do when you visit Switzerland in the winter, it’s to find a place where you can order a pot of bubbly cheese served with various foods for dipping. Switzerland, after all, is the birthplace of fondue, and there is no better place to try something than where it all began.
It was a Saturday night, and the rain started coming down a little harder as we pulled into the main station. We were hoping that if we just walked in any direction that we would find somewhere to get fondue. It ended up being a little more difficult than that, and after dodging the rainfall by ducking under building overhangs in downtown Zurich, we circled back to the train station to pick up a Wi-Fi signal. A quick search on Trip Advisor helped us find Raclette Stube, a highly-rated fondue restaurant that had reviewers raving about the bubbled cheese and dipping comestibles. It was a short walk over a bridge spanning Lake Zurich, which had ripples from raindrops and shimmered from the mixture of streetlamps bombarding the water’s surface with rays of light. As I said, it was a Saturday night, and we were anticipating a crowded restaurant as locals and other tourists might need a melted-cheese escape from the cold winter night. When we walked in the door, a handful of empty tables gave our growling stomachs relief, and we were seated immediately. It was a small table for two covered in a red-and-white checkerboard tablecloth adjacent to the open kitchen, where cooks and staff bustled to get pots of hot cheese and thin slices of meat to the hungry patrons.
The menu for a fondue restaurant isn’t overwhelming; there’s only a couple of cheeses to choose if you want fondue, and the main decision-making came from not knowing which wine to pick. Eventually, we each settled on a white wine, and of course, a fat pot of melted cheese (the moitié-moitié, or half and half) served with potatoes, bread, and pears. The waiter brought a carafe of wine for each of us, and eventually, the hot vat of fondue. Long-stemmed forks were soon after stabbing and dunking, guiding that bubbling, creamy, melted mess into our empty bellies. Our mouths were nearly burnt as we couldn’t even wait to devour the soft, fresh baked bread covered in molten cheese. Cold, sliced pears complemented the salty, light-yellow Gruyère and Vacherin that had once each had a unique form and flavor but now were combined for something altogether delicious and authentically Swiss. Small, round potatoes were rolled up in a cloth, placed into a woven basket, and steamed even hotter than the boiling pot of cheese. This was not a time to be delicate with the roofs of our mouths, though, and greedily, we gorged on the delicious fondue and edible dipping implements.
After scraping the sides of the red ceramic pot to get that last clinging bit and finishing the sweet white wine, we paid our bill and headed back to the train station. Sadly, it was my last night in Switzerland. There was still drama to unfold; my flight home had been cancelled. Luckily, that was resolved after another runaround through another unfamiliar airport. But those unfortunate happenings do not stick in my mind as much as the beautiful sights and pleasant views of historical landmarks and works of art and cityscapes and countrysides; they aren’t as memorable as the unique sounds of unfamiliar languages and bustling cities; the frustrations faced are not as clear as the feeling of the cold snow falling lightly and covering the ground or of the smooth trains passing through city after city as we approached new and exciting destinations; our bad luck was less overwhelming and more evanescent than the smells of hot wine and hot chocolate on a wintery day; and every mistake that we made can’t drown the delicious new foods that excited our taste buds in four different languages. The “good” definitely outweighed the bad, and the experience was amazing. After a long, teary-eyed goodbye, Kierstin and I parted ways. She had another month in Switzerland before we were reunited, but I was heading home. It was an incredible experience, indeed.