Friday, October 31st, 2014

Sherlock Holmes and Maltese Hospitality in Switzerland

27

View from Reichenbach Falls

If you’re backpacking or traveling on a tight budget, I have advice for you: skip Switzerland.

That’s not to say that Switzerland’s not a lovely and astoundingly beautiful place to visit. If you’ve got a mid-range or luxury budget, go ahead. And as I always say, if Switzerland is the destination that speaks to you, the place that you’ve always dreamed of visiting, go there! Make your travel dreams come true!

But Switzerland is painfully expensive — the most expensive place I’ve ever been. And, frankly, outside of adrenaline-crazed Interlaken, it’s not the most interesting place in the world. I much prefer Austria, which has gorgeous mountain scenery and interesting towns and cities, yet costs far less.

That said, we actually visited Switzerland twice on this trip and had fun both times. After experiencing a bit of French Switzerland in Geneva a few weeks earlier, we headed to Zug, a city about 25 minutes from Zurich in German Switzerland.

Why Zug? We had a family connection. Mario’s Maltese cousin, Adriana, has been living here for years with her English husband and their two young children. If anyone was going to show me the best of Switzerland, it would be a local!

Adriana and her husband could not have been more hospitable. After a few days of hosting us, feeding us, introducing us to their friends, driving us around, and taking us out to restaurants, Adriana was still muttering, “What else can I give to you?” as she packed us multiple sandwiches for our train ride to Vienna, along with big slices of cake.

That was my first taste of Maltese hospitality — and I loved it.

That on top of nights of endless conversation and fantastic wine, as well as karaoke performances by their four-year-old daughter and debates over Angry Birds with their six-year-old son, I think we were both ready to move in!

Swissest Restaurant Ever

Culture Shock in Switzerland

Life in Switzerland is idyllic in lots of ways: pristine cottages topping mountainsides; safe cities filled with industrious citizens; transportation that runs on time. (And the polar opposite of urban Malta in the 70s and 80s, where Adriana grew up.)

At the same time, life here can be difficult. Shortly after arriving, we stopped to have drinks right on the banks of brilliant Zuggersee, Zug’s lake. Nothing crazy. Two orange juices and a Sprite.

The bill came to 16 Swiss francs — $17. I nearly choked on my drink.

Yes, this is a region where people have lots of money. Mario gaped at a Ferrari that drove past us — then nearly melted down when we passed a Porsche Spyder.

“That’s nothing,” Adriana said. She once went to a party and took a look at what the women were wearing: “Gucci, Gucci, Gucci, Prada, Gucci, Gucci, Prada, Gucci. And I’m wearing a dress from Next.”

Mario and Adriana

While the money is culturally shocking in its own way, that’s nothing compared to school in Switzerland.

From the age of four and a half, Adriana’s son was expected to walk to school. Two kilometers away. Every day. In the darkness of winter. She is not permitted to drive him in anything less than a typhoon.

It’s actually not that bad when you consider the system — her son lives the furthest away from the school, so he walks to his classmate’s house and picks him up, then they walk together to the next classmate’s house, picking up a few more kids along the way until they get to school. And in the early days, their mothers walk with them until they learn the route. But still, at the age of four and a half — I still have to wrap my head around that.

That’s not all. One time, Adriana’s son was sent home with a note saying that he needed to buy a certain type of knife to carve his turnip lantern (“Yes, here they carve turnips. It’s actually really nice,” says Adriana). She wasn’t familiar with the word for the type of knife, so she showed it to a store clerk — who directed her to a huge and incredibly sharp knife. For a kindergartener.

Zuggersee

That’s what’s so different about education in Switzerland — kids are taught citizenship and life skills from an early age, rather than academic skills. The Swiss prioritize teaching things like having the kids greet their friends with handshakes each morning and having them take showers by themselves after gym class. As in many European countries, there are overnight class trips from a young age.

However, kids in Switzerland don’t even learn to read or write until age six or seven!

Coming from your home country, would you find it easy to adjust to a system like this? I know I wouldn’t. Adriana has found some things difficult to get used to, and has had some panicked conversations with her son’s teachers. As a result, she’s now got a reputation as a bit of a helicopter parent and has been hit with the dreaded question: “Do we need to call your husband?” (Yes, in this part of Switzerland, it’s expected that the fathers work and the mothers stay at home, but that’s another topic for another post…)

And then comes the funny part: though he speaks English at home, her son has recently started speaking English with a Swiss German accent. “They tell me the accent will fade eventually,” Adriana says, but she has nonetheless signed her son up for English lessons with a tutor.

Kate and Mario in Reichenbach Falls

Getting Sherlocky in Meiringen

Mario happens to be a huge Sherlock Holmes fan, and he had one special request for our time in Zug: to visit Reichenbach Falls, where Sherlock Holmes and his greatest nemesis, Moriarty, fought to the death. (…Or did they?)

Reichenbach Falls, in the town of Meiringen, was an easy journey from Zug: 25 minutes to Lucerne, then an hourlong train to Meiringen.

Meiringen

In Meiringen, we found a tiny, pretty town all too thrilled to be associated with Sherlock. First we visited the Sherlock Holmes Museum, which has a painstakingly created replica of Sherlock and Watson’s living room.

Sherlock Holmes Museum

No literary detail is overlooked here — every single prop is part of a story. Including those knives on the wall.

Models of select Sherlock Holmes stories were built:

Sherlock Holmes Model

You can also see letters written to and from Sherlock:

Sherlock Holmes Museum

To this day, if you write a letter to Sherlock Holmes, his secretary will answer you on his behalf! I won’t ruin the surprise, but the reply is simply delightful.

Even though I’m not a Sherlock Holmes fan, I loved this museum because you can see the passion that went into curating it. This is a museum built with love, and you feel that love when you walk through the rooms.

Reichenbach Falls Funicular

Next, Mario and I headed to check out the falls. We had bought a combination ticket that gave us access to the museum and a round-trip ride on the funicular to the top.

With all the rain and mist, it wasn’t exactly an ideal day — but we loved it.

Reichenbach Falls

Arthur Conan Doyle had a flair for the dramatic. At the time that he wrote this story, he was sick of Sherlock Holmes and wanted to kill him off. Rather than just have him be stabbed in a London alley, Doyle had Holmes travel to Switzerland with Watson before falling into the violent falls with Moriarty, struggling as they churned through the thundering rapids. It was the perfect ending.

His readers, however, were not happy. After years of being deluged with hate mail, Doyle relented and wrote a new story, where Holmes was revealed to have been faking his own death.

View from the Swiss Train

The absolute highlight of the day was the trade ride from Lucerne to Meiringen. I’ve taken a lot of scenic train journeys, but none can top this — the snow-capped mountains, the dark green lakes, the curvy roads and tiny Alpine houses build on the sides of mountains.

My time in Switzerland was wonderful — but at the same time, visiting Switzerland comes at a price. This is not a country for backpackers or shoestringers.

But if you’ve got the funds to spend — or a Maltese cousin with a spare room — you will have an amazing time.

Essential Info: Meiringen is one hour from Lucerne, two hours from Zurich, and 20 minutes from Interlaken by train. If you have a Eurail pass, you don’t need to make a reservation.

We bought a combination ticket for the Sherlock Holmes Museum and the funicular to the top of Reichenbach Falls for 11 CHF ($12). You can also buy museum tickets for 3 CHF ($3).

Letters to Sherlock Holmes can be addressed to him at 221B Baker Street, London, United Kingdom.

Many thanks to Eurail.com for their support of the European leg of the SOTM Tour. All opinions, as always, are my own.

Comments

27 Responses to “Sherlock Holmes and Maltese Hospitality in Switzerland”
  1. I am a Sherlock Holmes FANATIC and this spot is not put on the top of my travel list!

  2. I just left Switzerland a couple weeks ago and you’re not kidding on costs. That said, I would say it’s worth visiting even on a moderately tight budget and sticking to buying groceries and cooking at the hostel. My hostel in Gimmelwald was $33 a night with one of the great views anywhere. If you do groceries, make sandwiches, and cook at the hostel, it can fit in most any budget and there’s not a prettier place on Earth. It’s not a $30 a day place, but I think it’s worth stretching the budget slightly.

  3. I recently took a trip to Switzerland and I do agree with you it’s damn expensive but the hospitality is priceless. I was so well looked after by my Swiss friends I could barely pay for a thing! It’s such a beautiful country and so is Austria. I love that photo of the village in the hills.

  4. Next trip, I’d love to see more of Austria. What are your favorite places there?

    • I love Innsbruck and the Tyrolean countryside. So beautiful! Salzburg and Vienna are great as well, and I’d love to see more of the gorgeous Salzkammergut region.

  5. Mia says:

    I live in Switzerland and I agree with Joshua – there is no prettier place in the world. And cleanest. You won’t find one single ugly or dirty place in Switzerland.
    It’s very very expensive here, but that everybody has a lot of money and drives Ferrari or wear Gucci is bullshit. It gilts only for 10-15% people. Regular people have to fight with high costs of living. And wear H&M.
    To read or write don’t learn children till age of 6 in any country in Europe I guess. Adriana’s son is for sure not going to elementary school yet. The women with small children stay at home, because there is no regular kindergarten here. The children normally go only a few times a week to a Spielgruppe – a “play group”.
    More bizarre things that you write is for example thing, that if you live in an apartment, you are not allowed to take a shower after 10p.m. Or you cannot to mow the lawn between 12 and 13:30 a.m. And million other regulations you have to follow…
    You had a bad weahter as I can see.. you must come again.. when it’s nice…

    • Mia says:

      .. sorry, I meant: you are not allowed to maw the lawn between 12:00 – 1:30 p.m.

      • Monica says:

        I live here, too, and it’s the truth that you are not allowed to maw the lawn between 12:00-2:00 p.m. at least that’s the rule where i live in switzerland. but there for sure are many different rules in switzerland when it comes to making noise in the neighborhood ;) Life can be so diverse here. switzerland exists out of 26 cantons and the exhausting thing is that almost every canton has other rules. I totally agree with the rest you wrote. Foreign people always think just because they notice a few ferraris and porsches or bmw’s it means that everyone is switzerland is rich but that’s not true. there are a lot of people living in poverty here but nobody talks about that problem because we don’t want people to notice, right? :/

  6. Amanda says:

    The museum sounds really cool. But I was most surprised about the culture shock – you wouldn’t expect that in Switzerland! (At least, I didn’t.)

    I purposely didn’t include die Schweiz in my travel plans because of how ridiculously expensive it is. Starting out with London, Paris and Amsterdam is going to be bad enough as it is!

  7. Helen says:

    Great post Kate. I’ve never been to Switzerland other than in transit to France. I’m hoping to visit a friend who lives in Geneva soon, so perhaps I need to save some more money!

    I like the fact that kids learn citizenship rather than academic skills, I really think that is lacking in the British education system. I suppose children all over the walk to school from an early age. Kids in some of the countries I’ve visited are carrying babies on their backs at that age and walking miles to get water etc. But if it was my child, I would be so worried about them. I’m sure it’s character building but I’d be worried about them!

    Looks so beautiful though so I’m excited to go! Keep having fun!

  8. Paul says:

    Does learning to learn at a later age impede the child in the future? if not then I don’t see a problem. Do all kids have equal access to an education? Then that’s more than we have in the US of A.

  9. Julika says:

    Great post Kate! I had the exact (!) same experience drinking an orange juice in a café by the Rhine in Basel earlier this year — as much as I adore Switzerland, it is just not in my budget right now! (Although I would really love to visit the Sherlock Holmes Museum now!)

  10. Roisin says:

    I’m a huge fan of Sherlock Holmes and would love to visit the museum, it looks really cool :) And the scenery in Switzerland is amazing!

  11. Ben says:

    Great post Kate! I love living in Switzerland and have been here for a few years having moved from the UK. I agree it’s very expensive but most people here are not rich. Having said that salaries here are higher than most other European countries, so the cost always seems worse if you’re coming from abroad when you’re constantly working out how much something costs in your own currency. I still do this and think about the cost in British Pounds!

    For me the most difficult adjustments were the cost of food and the fact that everything completely shuts down every Sunday. Although I have come to enjoy the peaceful day afforded by the later, which encourages you to get out and explore the nature in the region.

    I have yet to visit Meiringen but as a Brit I feel like I must just to see the Sherlock Holmes museum, it looks fantastic in your photos! Looking forward to your next post.

  12. Sam says:

    Switzerland really is shockingly expensive. I couldn’t believe it either, and while I was there for work (so I wasn’t really spending my own money), it was still painful. I agree that Austria is much more interesting and certainly more affordable…but then I lived there on and off for about three years so I may be biased!

  13. Excellent information in regards to Switzerland. I was reading another post, which made me want to travel there. However, I am thinking to going to Austria instead being a little on the cheap side. Maybe someday I will be able to afford a trip to Switzerland.

  14. Robert says:

    In fairness you should point out that Zug is practically the most expensive place in Switzerland, being the place where hedge fund financial types establish themselves for (I think) tax reasons. From the sound of your description of the family you stayed with, I assume the English husband works in the area of financial investment. I expect you realise you stepped into the heart of the financial yuppie world, and perhaps you should have mentioned it. Maybe the financial world seems a bit understated being in Switzerland. but the Ferrari and Porsche gave it away.

    • Robert, I didn’t mention it because the English husband does not work in the area of financial investment. I won’t be further elaborating on his career for privacy reasons, but again, he’s not a finance guy.

  15. noel says:

    I have a house trade to Switzerland in 2014, if it weren’t for that I don’t think I would have considered Switzerland and the cost compared to our dollar. Looks gorgeous!

  16. kle says:

    I have many friends living there, and some relatives too. They all tell me that the nature is great but can be quite boring living there after a while. I’ll visit if someone host me and pay for my orange juice :))

  17. Choney says:

    I was in Zurich past Jan 13 and it was nice. Nice place geography and culturally. I was fortunate enough to live in a friend’s 2 million dollar house by the Zurich lake. Their house was amazing!! Going there during Winter kinda sucked because we didn’t do much outdoor activities. Zurich is I think the most expensive city there. Not everyone there was rich. Saw a couple of beggars near the big shopping centers and a bunch of Eastern Europeans come there to work in the service industry. Also it’s really expensive to own a house in Zurich. The 1 percents were driving around in luxury cars and wearing expensive clothes. But I was bored after like 2 days. It’s a nice place to retire and for old people. I bailed Zurich for Venice! Then went to Florence and Rome.

  18. That is hilarious about the knife, but I remember that I had to buy one when I was at primary school too (I would have been 6-7 though). I grew up in Germany, and I guess Switzerland and Germany are fairly similar in culture. Nice article-it is great to read about something more personal and with a few insider tips.

  19. Monica says:

    Hi Kate

    iI highly enjoyed reading your travel experience through my country. Some things I found really funny to read. Things that I even did not know about us. ;) It’s alwaS interesting to hear what foreign people think about switzerland. But you are right in so many ways. Like when it comes to spending money here. It is indeed the shocking truth and even after living here for almost 24 years now ( I was born here) I still can’t seem to get used to that expensive life. Yes, this is coming from a citizen and it’s the truth.
    Many people started to go buy their clothes and groceries in germany because it makes a huge difference on your bank account. it’s starting to become a major problem, though, because there are less and less people supporting the local stores. And isn’t it normal that kids are taught to write and read at the age of 6/7 ? It was definitely interesting to read that in the zug area it is common that wife staYs at home while husband goes to work and bring the money home. i know some families where it is the exact opposite. But not in Zug, i don’t know anyone living in Zug. Yes, Meiringen is a sweet village. My friend lives there but i never got to see the reichenbach falls – what a shame!
    So if you ever consider to return to switzerland for some time, i’ll definitely have an open spot for you in the zurich area. I think couchsurfing was the perfect invention. whoever came up with that glorious idea – bless you. I alwaS enjoy meeting new people from other countries and different cultures. Traveling is something I could never give up. I’ll start my very first big journey this upcoming may and it’ll take me me to vancouver, my first stop. i hope that, through your blog, i learn to become a confident and fearless person traveling the world. Just like you. i looove reading your traveling experience, it definitely helps me to preapre for my trip. enjoy as much as you can on your last month traveling your country before returning home. finally. :)

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