Trouble in Switzerland

Switzerland mountains

“The flight is canceled.” I said. “It’s so typical of the French to go on strike and screw things up for everybody.”

We were supposed to fly to Nice in the south of France to meet up with our former foreign exchange student named Natacha (yes, I know that sounds Russian and not French; she even has a brother named Boris!). The French air traffic controllers had called a three day strike, and Air France had already changed our flight to avoid it. We headed to the airport hoping for the best. The flight was scheduled to leave at 3 pm. It was now 4:30 pm.

“We have two choices.” I said to my wife and daughter. “We can wait until 9pm for the next flight, but that is likely to get canceled too. Or we can go home and come back tomorrow and hope that the Frenchies have found something better to do than continue the strike, like drink wine and eat cheese.” Neither of these sounded good, since we were supposed to meet Natacha at 7pm.

As we were waiting to get our checked bags back from luggage purgatory, I had another idea.

“What about a road trip?” I said. “We can rent a car and drive there. We should be able to get there by midnight.” Munich to Nice by car is 800 kilometers (~500 miles) – about eight hours of driving. “We can call Natacha and tell her we’ll be late.”

“Road trip!” they chanted in reply.

I hiked over to the Sixt counter while the ladies waited for the bags. Since it was peak tourist season and I didn’t have a reservation, there were very few cars available, and all were at outrageous walk-up prices. I ended up getting a brand new Mini Cooper. Cool! I’ve never driven a Mini before. This will be fun!

mini cooper
It looks good!

I also had to rent a GPS unit. I have one of my own, by I had purposefully left it at home since I thought I was going to be flying on a plane, riding in a taxi, and taking the bus on this trip. I had no desire to drive in central Nice.

Suitably outfitted with Mini and GPS, I picked up the girls at the curb outside of the departure door, and quickly discovered my first mistake. The car.

The Mini might be considered a fine automobile if you are by yourself, are taking it across the city to pick up a book at the library, prefer a rock hard suspension, and if you have never driven a real BMW. It is not the right vehicle for a cross-country trip with three people (two of them women), three suitcases, a backpack, a carry-on, a large tourist camera, two purses, snacks, three cell phones, three water bottles, and an iPad. Especially if it is a two-door model.

“Why did you get a two-door?” asked my wife.

“Uhh, it’s what they gave me. It was the only thing available.” I replied. I didn’t admit to forgetting to ask the Sixt woman about this feature.

This Mini didn’t have a trunk. It had a small cubbyhole behind the rear seat. I managed to stuff my backpack and the carry-on into the space and slammed the back door shut. I piled the suitcases into the back seat by wedging them through the space between the front passenger seat and the rear quarter panel. The Mini had about four inches of space on the floor behind the front seats where my daughter, sitting in the back seat, could put her feet. If I sat back there, my knees would cover my ears. She squeezed into the little available space in back while my wife and I claimed the front seats.

I put the clutch in gear and took off into the Munich rush hour traffic. Every time I looked to the left I banged my head on a handle attached to the Mini’s ceiling. I had to crane my neck down to see out of the windshield. If I straightened up my vision included the inside roof of the car. The seat was hard and my legs were cramped after five minutes. Only eight hours to go.

I relied on the GPS to tell me where to go. This would prove to be my second mistake. I managed to set it to speak English instead of German. Das gut!

Switzerland mountains
The Swiss Alps

We left Germany behind and crossed the skinny part of Austria, then raced across Switzerland. The view of the Alps was spectacular while we climbed higher and higher. A few hours later we were getting close to Italy. The sky was darkening. It happens every night.

“Look! There is a tiny mountain village named Splügen!” I called out as I read the road sign. “What do they do in Splügen? Hello, I am from Splügen. Excuse me, I think I just Splügened.” After five hours in the car I found this to be the funniest thing in the world. My wife rolled her eyes. My daughter groaned.

And then we came upon road construction signs indicating the road ahead was closed. We got off the main road and followed a semi in front of us, while peaking at the detour signs as they flashed by. We drove a few hundred meters on a parallel one lane road and then came to an impromptu tee in the road. The semi turned left, but our rental GPS told us to turn right. So I turned right.

Swiss hiking signs
Which way to Italy?

The road wandered down a short valley and then took a hairpin turn to the left and up a slight incline. In a daze I slowed to first gear to take the turn. I cranked the wheel of the go-cart I was driving and scampered around the hairpin. After a hundred meters I was doing it again in the other direction. In my head I was thinking “can this be the right way to go?” I trusted the GPS, it must be right. I was tired, cramped, and cranky. I should have been relaxing in a hotel room on the French Riviera after a stupendous dinner and a bottle of wine. Instead I was manhandling this Mini up a couple of Swiss hairpin curves in the dark.

After three more hairpin turns my decaffeinated brain finally overcame its stupor and kicked into gear. This can’t be the right road. How would the semis handle this? These turns are so tight there isn’t enough room for a truck to make the turn. I had to turn around.

I stopped the car. It was pitch dark outside. I got out to have a look around. From the Mini’s headlights I could barely make out that to my left was a sheer drop off. Depth unknown. There was no guard rail. To my right was a sheer cliff. Height unknown. Then I comprehended that the road was only one lane wide. About 15 feet. There was no way to turn around. There was also no way I was going to back down the road through those hairpin turns. I had to go forward.

I resigned myself to this fate. The safety of my family was at stake. I had horrible visions of TV shows and movies where the car plunges over the side of the mountain road and bursts into flames as it rolls down and down into oblivion. Why do I always run into trouble in Switzerland? (See my other Swiss misadventure here). I vowed never to return, but this time it’s just passing through. Does that count?

hairpin turns in Switzerland
A portion of the road (from Google Earth).

I hunched over the steering wheel, peering into the darkness and praying that no one would be coming down this road from the other side of the mountain. I stayed in first gear, lunging and lurching around each hairpin turn, up and up towards the mountain peak. I lost count of how many times I spun the wheel first one way and then back again.

After what seemed like an eternity I took the last turn and the road straightened out on top of the mountain. I had made it! I now knew the euphoric feeling that mountaineers get when they reach the summit.

San Bernardino Pass
The top of the pass in daylight.

I passed a deserted café and a tranquil lake. The road then started to descend. What goes up, must go down. I could barely detect the lights of a city in the distance, on the valley floor below. How many hairpin turns away is that place?

For another eternity I crept downward, staying in first gear or coasting in neutral. Down and around, endlessly down and around went the Mini. Until finally the road straightened out and joined a wider road stretching into civilization. We were finally in Italy and I was a nervous wreck. At least we were alive.

I found out later that I had inadvertently driven the San Bernardino Pass road in Graubünden, Switzerland, one of the highest paved roads in Europe. (I was going to say “accidentally” driven, but that sounds bad in this context.) This road was featured in a Top Gear episode where the three guys try to find the best driving road in the world.

I ended up on the mountain road because due to the road construction and the f$%#*$! GPS navigation system I missed the route through the San Bernardino Tunnel. Yes, there is a tunnel through the mountain, which is the easy way to get into Italy on this route.

The top of the pass (at 6,778 feet) is the dividing line between German speakers and Italian speakers and is where the Rhine River basin starts. It is only open in the summer, primarily for mountain hikers. Luckily it was early summer when I was there, so the snow was gone. The route was originally a mule track in the fifteenth century. A road for wheeled vehicles was opened in 1770, and improved in the 1820s.

The bypass tunnel was opened in 1967 to facilitate passage by big trucks and tourists who rent Minis. It is used by all, except for those weary travelers who blindly obey their GPS systems.

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Hiking in the Berner Oberland, Switzerland

Swiss cow in the Alps

Mere words are not enough to describe the spectacular scenery of the Swiss Alps.

Swiss cow in the Alps
Swiss cheese anyone?

We stayed in the small town of Lauterbrunnen.  It is a good place to use as a base camp to explore the area of Switzerland called the “Berner Oberland.”  The Berner Oberland is the high country south of Bern in the middle of Switzerland.  Lauterbrunnen is at 800 meters (2,624 ft.) above sea level.

view of Wengen
A view across the Lauterbrunnen Valley

We took a cable car up the mountain to a place called Grutschalp.  Grutschalp (1,485 m., 4,872 ft.) is at one end of a plateau.  Next, we took a train for a few minutes to the town of Mürren (1,638 m. 5,374 ft.), at the other end of the plateau.  There are no cars in Mürren.  There is no road to this town high up in the mountains.  The only way to get there is to use the cable car or hike on foot.

There is a place at the edge of the cliff near Mürren called the “Nose.”  BASE jumpers jump off the cliff, free fall 12 seconds, deploy their parachutes, and gently fly down to the floor of Lauterbrunnen Valley.  BASE stands for Buildings, Antennas, Spans (bridges), and Earth (cliffs), the four things on which these daredevils jump off. The BASE jumpers congregate at a local pub to tell the tales of their jumps and share videos they make from cameras mounted in their helmets.

BASE jumper
A BASE jumper heads for the Lauterbrunnen Valley floor

From Mürren we took another cable car on a short ride to a tiny village called Allmendhubel (say that fast five times!) (1,907 m., 6,256 ft.).  This village is where the trailhead is for one of the best trails in Europe.  We hiked the Mountain View Trail from Allmendhubel back to Grutschalp.  It took about two hours.  The trail was relatively flat for most of the way.  The views were incredible.  The weather was perfect too, sunny, clear and about 70 degrees.

view of the Swiss Alps
The Swiss Alps - where is Heidi?

We could see the famous peaks of Eiger (3,970 m., 13,024 ft.), Mönch (4,107 m., 13,474 ft.), and Jungfrau (4,158 m., 13,641 ft.).  The Jungfrau is the highest mountain in Europe.  The Eiger has been featured in several movies.  One of them is the Eiger Sanction with Clint Eastwood (1975).  I watched a German film a few months ago called NordWand (North Face) (2008).  North Face is a suspenseful adventure film about a competition to climb the north face of the Eiger in the 1930s.  Climbers had made it to the top of Eiger first in 1858, but they had gone on an easier route on the south side.  Nobody had completed an ascent of the difficult north face, said to be the most difficult in Europe. After having seen and enjoyed the film, it was very interesting to see the Eiger in person.

The Eiger is the peak on the left.

While hiking the trail, we came across quite a few cows.  Every cow had a big bell around its neck.  The mountainside is normally very quiet and tranquil in summer.  Except for the tinkling of cows walking around!  They sound like a lot of wind chimes.  The Swiss make excellent cheese from these alpine cows.

An inch long hummingbird in Lauterbrunnen

By the time we made it back to the hotel, our hips, knees, and feet were sore.  However, it was worth it to spend an exceptional day to hike the Berner Oberland.

on the Mountain View Trail
Hiking on the Mountain View Trail
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The Swiss Train Chief

train in Switzerland

“Nein, nein, nein….,” muttered the train chief as he shook his head. “Zis is no gut!”

I stared at him, not sure of what he was talking about.  The train chief was the ticket collector.  Soon after each stop on the line he walked the length of the train checking and punching tickets. It was my turn to have my ticket checked.

“Vut iz zis?” he said as he closely examined my Eurail pass in his hands. “You have two numbers here! No gut!”

“What do you mean?” I said. “What’s the problem?”

Swiss train over the Alps
A Swiss train...

I had bought a Eurail pass instead of individual tickets for each train ride.  The pass was for ten days of travel within two months.  I was on the second day of the pass.  I had used the first day for the train ride from Civitavecchia, Italy (the port city where we got off the ship) to Milan via Rome.  The Eurail pass is an old style paper card with ten small spaces at the bottom where you are supposed to write down (in ink) the month and day of each use.  The first date was written in by the train clerk at the station in Civitavecchia.  Writing in every subsequent day was my responsibility.

I was going to use the pass on an earlier day and had written in that month and day.  Then I didn’t need to use the pass.  So that morning I wrote over that day (a 26) with today’s day (a 28).  Apparently, he didn’t like that.

“It looks like you have written over one number with another!” he said. He pulled a small monocular out of his pocket (the kind that a jeweler might use), stuck it in one eye and squinted with his other eye.  The monocular emitted a strange blue light.

“Uh, yes, I did that,” I admitted.  “I was going to use the pass on the second day and didn’t.  Now I am using it today.”  This was the second train ride of the day.  The train chief on the first train had looked at the card and gave it back to me without comment.  This guy was a different story.

“You cannot do that,” he said.

“Well, I didn’t know that,” I said.  “Nobody told me that.  I haven’t read that anywhere.  I’ve only used the pass on one day, now I am using it today.”  It didn’t seem that I was getting anywhere with this guy, although he spoke and understood English very well.

“Passports, please,” he said. Without thinking I obediently handed over our passports.  He said he would make a call and be back in a few minutes.

train in Switzerland
Berner Oberland train to Lauterbrunnen

I was wondering, what is this guy’s problem?  I know I am in Switzerland now and no longer in Italy.  I’m sure they do things differently here.  They are known for several things, like Swiss efficiency, watches, chocolate, and knives.  I didn’t know they had overzealous train chiefs too.

Maybe he was a chicken-shit bureaucrat, caught up in the trappings of his own power as the ticket collector on this train.  He could browbeat innocent passengers for his own sadistic enjoyment.  Maybe he had little man’s syndrome, trying to overcompensate for his failures and deficiencies in other areas of his life.

I’m not sure that was it, since he was a fairly big, beefy guy in his late 30s.  His face was sunburned from a weekend either hiking in the Alps or sailing on the ThunerSee.  His name tag said “Ole Olson.”  Sounds like a Norwegian name, not a Swiss one.  Come to think of it, he looked Norwegian too.

Olson was back.  He asked me to come with him.  I followed him into the area between the railroad cars.  At this point he had my Eurail pass and our passports in his possession.

“Here iz ze problem,” he said. “You marked zis pass wrong.  Now it iz invalid. It’s no gut. So, I send zis to my boss.  You are now on zis train with no tickets.  So you must buy two tickets.  Each ticket is 103 Swiss Francs. There is a fine for being on zis train with no tickets.  The fine is 150 Swiss Francs.” (the total was 356 Swiss Frances = ~$435).

“HUH? Let me get this straight.  You are confiscating my Eurail pass that cost me $1,400 for two first class seats that should be good for ten days of train use.  I have used this pass only once so far.  Then you are charging me over $400 for new tickets AND a fine?!”

“Ya, zat’s right.  It iz the rule.  Ve must follow ze rules.  Do you have a credit card?” he said as he pulled out his portable credit card reader.

Queue the “Bourne Identity” theme music:

“You’re not going to do that to me today, Mr. Ole F*&#ing Olson!” I yelled.  I drove my knee him as fast as I could into his groin.  As he started to double over in pain I head-butted him, breaking his nose and spewing blood all over his nice train chief’s uniform.  When he was down, I kicked him hard several times in the kidneys.  Then I kicked him the hardest in the back of the head to put him unconscious.

Just then the train slowed down for the next stop.  It wasn’t our stop, but it was time to go.  We grabbed our suitcases and hopped off the train before anybody found Mr. Olson, train chief on the Basel line.  We lost ourselves in the crowd.  We were on the run.  I felt like Jason Bourne.


Ok, it didn’t really go down like that.  I didn’t like what was happening, but I didn’t want to get arrested either.  That would definitely ruin my vacation.  I’m sure Swiss jails are models of efficiency and comfort, perhaps with HD TV and 157 satellite channels, muesli and yogurt for breakfast, and chocolate for desert after dinner. I might even get to carve fancy wood things with a Swiss Army knife, if they let those things into a Swiss prison.

Queue some Disneyland theme music (something about the happiest place on earth?):

“With all due respect, Mr. Olson, I didn’t know the rules here.  I am a visitor in your country.  I am on vacation here to contribute to your economy by spending twice as much for everything as I would spend at home.  Surely you can see the good I am doing just by being on this train.  In fact, by using the pass that I paid for, I am contributing in some small way to your salary.  I’m sure you can find it in the goodness of your heart, and because it is a nice sunny day, to overlook this minor infraction and send me on my way with my passports and pass.”

“I cannot do that,” he said.

“OK,” I said.  “How about this: you write in today’s date on the third spot on my pass.  I forfeit the use of the second day.  But you give me back the pass and I can use it for seven more days.”

“Ya sure,” he said.  “You look like a nice American.  I like Americans a lot.  Especially Mr. Bush.  I was just, how you say it – ‘yanking your chain.’  Ha Ha. Have a nice holiday.”

He smiled as he patted me on the back.  He gave me back our passports and my Eurail pass after writing in it.  I went back to my seat to continue reading my book.


Queue serious, somber, dramatic documentary theme music:

Well, that didn’t actually happen either, except perhaps in my dreams that night.  What really happened is that he wouldn’t budge on his demand for my credit card.  He wouldn’t listen to my arguments.  All he would say is that he sees something on the pass so he must enforce the rules.  I got mad, I argued, I asked for his name and his supervisor’s name.  I asked for where this rule is stated.  It made no difference.  He was determined to stick to the rules.  Welcome to Switzerland.

In the end I had no choice but to pay for the new tickets and the fine in order to get our passports back.

I will never go to Switzerland again.