How I got the real flavour of Switzerland

I had visited Switzerland earlier with my better half in 2005, for our honeymoon. The memories that I had from and over the last six years were from the perspective of a tourist. We had visited and adored the places that were recommended by the tourism sites. It was great and so beautiful… During Sept 2013, I got another opportunity to spend 2 weeks in the world’s most beautiful place. I was working on a new project and it required technical training, which was being conducted in Basel. I was the only one traveling from India office and had close to one month to plan out everything. The training was in 2 phases, 4 days (Tuesday to Friday) training in the first week, followed by 3 days (Wednesday to Friday) training in next week. This left me with complete 4 days’ break in between to explore the country beyond Basel. So I started my research on all the fronts – the first and most important was where to stay?

As I researched for accommodation I realised my 3 constraints, starting with the budget. As I was managing the budget of the whole trip, I wanted best return of the money. The second constraint was the proximity of accommodation to the training center, as I wanted to save on travel time and money everyday. The last constraint was the fear of loneliness – I needed some company, since I was travelling by myself and staying for 15 days in Switzerland, the idea of living alone in a hotel by myself was not too exciting (especially since I had to leave behind my wife and son of 3 years).

After spending 2-3 days on travelling/hotel booking sites in and around Basel I was out of choices based on the above constraints. At the very moment someone came to my rescue. AirBnb it was! It is an online portal which enables people to rent out their accommodation to travellers. While the accommodations and the hosts are reviewed by the guests (which is a great helping aid when you want to decide between various options), the guests too can be reviewed and a well-rated guest is a great assurance for the host. A fabulous idea! Based on the experience of their website, I was sure that I had come to the right place. Also I was totally blown away by the number of accommodation options they had in Basel.

001_Airbnb Selection Process

Selecting a homestay at airbnb

Using their map based accommodation search and after shortlisting a couple of options in Basel on the basis of location, photos, facilities, reviews and ratings of the place, I directly contacted the owners using the service provided by the website. The whole process was so seamless and simple, I finally booked a flat near office and got to interact more with the host as we exchanged a couple of emails. Now the next task was to plan out the personal outing during the training break.

Since I had covered most of the touristy places of Swiss in my debut visit, I wanted to plan this 4-day trip differently. After assessing multiple places, I decided to spend 4 days in a beautiful village Ghei, Spiez, which is located on the shore of Lake Thun. I was looking for the experience of how exactly does it feel to stay in a Swiss village. So the big problem was how to find hotels in a village? Surely enough, once again AirBnB came to the rescue, as it had numerous options to stay in Spiez. I decided on a wood house right on the lake. The main attraction of this house was that it was built in the 13th century. The pictures on their web-listing were so breathtaking that now more than the country visit, I was waiting to be in this house and location for real.

It was October 7 when I landed in Zurich and had to travel to Basel, which is another 2-hours’ train journey. As we know, it’s a tourist friendly country, I got my train booking done on the spot and was aboard the train in the next 15 mins. The most exciting part of the train journey was the breathtaking views, in the small towns or endless green pastures. Each view was that perfect postcard snapshot!

The town of Basel is located where the Swiss, French and German borders meet. So Basel also has suburbs in France and Germany. It is located in northwest Switzerland on the river Rhine, and turns out to be among the most important cultural centres of Switzerland. The city contains a large number of theatres and museums, including the Museum of Fine Arts, the world’s oldest art collection accessible to the public.

As I reached Basel in the evening, I had to only walk to Kasia’s house from the main train station, and it was a very warm welcome accompanied with hot coffee. Wow!! In a strange, mystical, faraway land someone was waiting for you and was concerned about your journey. After sharing the quick update on my well being during the travel, I took a tour of the house. Kasia’s home was decorated very tastefully, with each and every corner of the house (including the bathrooms) full of artwork. The special attraction of the house was the open air balcony attached to the kitchen.

Breakfast at Kasia's place

Breakfast at Kasia’s place

The next day started with a delicious breakfast freshly prepared by Kasia, with a very special highlight – freshly baked croissants with Indian lassi. At work front, the first leg of training started and continued for next 4 days. For this period it was mostly the same routine, training for the full day and some exploration of the city in the evening. I was eagerly waiting for the weekend to come, was really looking forward for my onward journey to Spiez.

Exploring Basel

Exploring Basel

Spiez is a small, quaint little town on the south shore of Lake Thun. It has a wonderful medieval castle and offers spectacular views across the lake. Spiez is an ideal starting point for exploring a wide range of popular destinations in the Bernese Oberland and the Valais. Another city famous with Indian travellers in the same region is Interlaken. A lot has been written about Interlaken already on Ghumakkar by multiple wonderful authors.

My Destination at Spiez next to the lake

My Destination at Spiez next to the lake

My destination for the next 4 days was in a village calle Ghei, in Spiez. The journey to reach the house was quite adventurous. I planned to reach the place during day light but somehow got late and it was pitch dark when I attempted the last leg of my journey which was a walk of around 1 km. The instructions from the host were very detailed but very interesting too. It included references of cows and stones in the directions. In her own words, “walk straight down on GHEIWEG… on the right there is an *ALTERSHEIM*…  first its like a street and then there are many little stones…like a field-way… every time walk straight on… till you come to the cows… there walk left… there is a sign *PRIVAT* … walk there straight on… and you’re welcome” :)

On top of all this it had started drizzling, I still remember the walk. With my phone serving as the music player and torch and the hood of my rucksack as a pseudo rain coat, I walked across the dark pathways hearing distant bell tinging which was coming from nearby farmland. I walked across “cows” and saw “PRIVAT” sign board, and heaved a sigh of relief after meeting the hosts.

The home and the hosts were very interesting. Katrin was practicing Ayurveda  professionally, hard to believe, and she had studied ayurveda from Germany. She was an avid follower of Buddhism. On the other hand her partner was a kick boxer with a suitable physique. About the house, this wooden house was located at the shore of Lake Thun and was built in 13th century. The house was centrally heated by an internal fireplace right inside the main hall, which required constant feed of wood logs. There were 18 more occupants in the house – 6 cats, 2 rabbits, 2 dogs and 8 birds. I strongly, only wanted to just stay inside this beautiful, interesting place for next four days and not bother going anywhere else. But the moment I stepped out the house next morning, I realized the dark pathways I crossed in the night were actually beautiful green pastures. I was in dreamland and wanted to explore more.

Highlights of the stay at Spiez

Highlights of the stay at Spiez

Katrin was kind enough to offer their mountain-bike (cycle) for my exploration. I accepted very happily and started my journey on one side of the road without knowing my destination. Actually I never wanted to reach any destination, and the hilly road along the lake with beautiful views was turning out to be my calling. To add to it I had a good quota of beer with me. There were many gardens along the road that provided a good stop for beer breaks and the journey continued. There were multiple interesting houses on the way, like this one that had done up its façade done using old crockery.

The house with facade made of crockery

The house with facade made of crockery

For my share of a customary culture shock, I came across a small shop next to the road that was selling fresh vegetables. I stopped to click some pictures of the interesting vegetables. All the vegetables had a price tag and there was a money box kept along side. After 10 mins of photography I realized that there was no shopkeeper! So this shop was on self mode. This hypothesis was re-assured by the lady who “bought” a pumpkin by putting the right amount of money in the box and just walk away with pumpkin. I was in a state of shock and started thinking of scenarios if such a shop is located in India. Later in the evening I had a discussion with Katrin who told that this is a common practice in the Swiss towns and a lot of people do this at their farm shops.

Shop without shopkeeper

Shop without shopkeeper

Bike rides around Spiez

Bike rides around Spiez

I did mostly the same thing for the next 3 days as well, covering all 4 directions with cycle, beer and good music for company. I visited various vineyards and castles during the tenure. It was finally, the time to go back, and I never wanted to leave the place. With a heavy heart and heavier luggage, thanks to the return gifts from Katrin which included multiple swiss cheese and chocolates I headed for the second leg of the training starting the next day.

I was back in Kasia’s place in Basel and this time around I promised to myself that I would cover most of the city in the remaining 4 days. The highlight of this leg was my visit to Opera.

Kasia was a professional violinist who played in the opera. She insisted on attending this opera called Tosca which was scheduled in Basel theatre. I had never been to the opera before and was excited about the opportunity. I did my homework by reading and understanding the story before hand since it was going to be in German. Thanks to Kasia, I got a 50% discount on the 120 Euro ticket and got the seat in the first row. It was an amazing experience to see orchestra of around 100 people playing continuously for 2.5 hours and actors singing their dialogues in the loud high pitch – no-mikes  used! It was the distortion free music and an elating feeling.

The last day before my departure was reserved for Basel Zoo. Kasia agreed to give me company and she took her grandson along. We had a great fun at the zoo and watching the good swiss arrangements for animals. The day ended with a small get together at Kasia’s place, especially curated for me.

Basel Zoo

Basel Zoo

I departed yet again, from Kasia’s place with a heavy heart and lot of warm, beautiful memories, oh yes and bag loads of gifts from her.

As I was returning from the country of beautiful landscapes and wonderful people, I realised how fortunate I was to have had the experience of being able to live the life of the locals – something that we all as travellers aspire to do – and top it with the warmth of the most hospitable hosts. It was a new perspective and I promised to be back!

Coming back with Memories

Coming back with Memories

and p.s.: airbnb also gives instant credit if you are referred by a member and you can use it against your booking when you travel and book through them. So here you are!

 

27 Comments

  • Smita Dhall says:

    A great debut, Swapnil! The story is great… to the extent of being enviable. What better way to enjoy a European holiday than being in a quaint small town with warm and hospitable local hosts! You did it! Welcome to Ghumakkar.

    Now for Airbnb, I have been a registered user for long but could not use the services as a guest though I tried multiple times (short notice, non-availability, etc. etc.). But I can vouch for their services as a HOST. It is so simple and the guests are pre-verified. You can read reviews about the interested guests and take your call, effortlessly. And what you get in return is the great opportunity to meet and host new people from across the globe. So thank you for sharing the ‘guest’ side for a BnB user.

    • Swapnil Shrivastava says:

      Thanks a lot Smita. You have captured the crux of the story, the main highlight of the travel was small town and amazing hosts.

  • Jaishree says:

    A great account of a unique journey… read it twice, first a racy read and second a leisurely read………..post large photos.

  • Nandan Jha says:

    Welcome aboard Swapnil.

    A very comprehensive log of your travel across the country side of Switzerland. A refreshing read and something which goes beyond the regular touristy stuff. Thank you.

    Airbnb is doing (and growing) very well though in India, I guess it would take a while for the concept (to let guests live alongside you) to take home but it is always much more rewarding than to stay in a hotel. We recently stayed at one such place in Allahabad along with hosts and it was a very unique experience.

    Wishing you many more such business travels :-)

  • Deepti says:

    Beautiful story Swapnil!

    I did not know about Airbnb – thanks for the pointer.

    • Swapnil Shrivastava says:

      Thanks Deepti.
      Yaa that was the idea, Airbnb is such a nice concept and it’s powered by the people like us. Let’s grow the community.

  • MUNESH MISHRA says:

    Hi Swapnil !

    Welcome to Ghumakkar. Very nice post of Switzerland. Collage of photos are very impressive.

    Thank you for sharing, keep travelling, keep sharing with Ghumakkar.

    • Swapnil Shrivastava says:

      Thanks Munesh.
      Yaa I tried to put all the photos together in a collage to showcase the mood of the place/event.

  • Nitin says:

    Crisp story and great snaps! Great going….

  • Sanghamitra says:

    Very well written. it must have been an amazing experience.

  • Anupam Chakraborty says:

    If such a shop is located in India?

    Wait for a while, let there be a fall in population, a rise of honesty, a better understanding of civic sense, and many more. But for that, dear brother! You and I may not be here.

    Hai, take my bow first. Wow! A great story, superb angle, and perhaps from a great story teller.

    A Big Warm Welcome to Ghumakkar, Swapnil.

    Keep coming back with more such stories.

    • Swapnil Shrivastava says:

      “You and I may not be there”, very true Anupam.
      Thanks a lot for reading the story and all the appreciation. I will surely write more.

  • Karunesh Varma says:

    Though I had already seen the photographs and listened to the wonderful experience you had,first hand, it was indeed a joy to go through the narration-very well written-precise and interesting.
    Loved the collages which complement the narrative so aptly.
    Have read it on the go on my iPhone. Will revisit from a PC for a better view of the collage and re read to let the feeling sink in.
    You can add on more trait in your profile: Writer.

  • Tarun Talwar says:

    I envy you buddy. You seem to have had a lot of fun away from all the tourist traps and commercialization.

    Keep travelling and writing.

  • Ram Dhall says:

    Welcome aboard Swapnil.

    Your brilliantly written post, supported by some scintillating pictures has refreshed my memories of our first visit to Switzerland, where we spent two weeks. We were stationed at Geneva at our daughter’s apartment. As usual, the first choice of tourists is an excursion to Jungfraujoch. We stayed at a Hostel called “Funny farm” at Interlaken. Though the place was good, it lacked hospitality. So, during our visit to Lucerne and Zurich, we decided to look for a “home stay” at a small town Vitznau, which gives access to Mount Riggi. A friend suggested a small cottage owned by Host family Richard and Agnes. Richard was there to receive us at the boat station and a sizzling hot cup of coffee awaited us at the cottage. It was 11 A.M. by the time we settled in our well decorated cozy room. Richard offered us a glass of beer and walked down with us to enjoy the beauty of the lush green countryside. Homemade cheese sandwiches for the lunch made our day. Since usage of kitchen was available, my wife cooked a great chicken dish served with fresh bread bought at one of the “Co-Op” stores. A drink of scotch for the super made our evening memorable.

    Thank you for introducing us to Airbnb. We are planning a visit to the US, UK, Switzerland (our favorite destination) and Austria and would certainly look forward to support by Airbnb.

    Keep on writing and help us know about such supportive sites.

    • Swapnil Shrivastava says:

      Thanks Ram Sir,
      Nice to read your experience with Richard and Agnes. It’s the warmth of these people which stays with your for a long long time. I can really co-relate the experience.
      I hope you have similar experience in your next trip.

  • Abhijit Mukhopadhyay says:

    An extraordinary post Swapnil…supported by beautiful collages. Probably such are the stuff with which dreams are made of.

    Your observation on the shop brings out the real distinction…GDP growth alone can not be the real indicator of a country’s progress. With money flow great infrastructures can be developed, large malls built and swanky airports opened but REAL CHANGE will always depend on the change of the mind set. The livability index should be the factor and for that we need a civil society. God only knows when and whether at all we will reach that level of civility.

    By the way…we are planning a euro trip in coming months…could you please suggest a good ‘ home stay’ in Zurich for 8 persons ?

    Best wishes,
    Abhijit Mukhopadhyay

  • Nirdesh Singh says:

    Hi Swapnil,

    Welcome Aboard! You never seemed like you are new here.

    Picture perfect post with amazing photos of an amazing destination. I think living in a village by the lake is a perfect idea for people going to Switzerland.

    Hope to see you get more training assignments!

    • Swapnil Shrivastava says:

      Thanks Nirdesh,
      Yes I strongly recommend spiez to anyone who is going to swiss.
      You get to see real country there.

  • Raunak says:

    Very well written Swap.
    Feels as if we too were a part of your trip :)
    Keep going, and do log your other travel experiences too.
    This gave me inspiration to write my first travelogue, about my favorite destination: Goa !

    Good Luck

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