“When you go to Switzerland, you will find that everything there is perfect,” my host mother told me Thursday night.
And how right she was.
I chose Interlaken, Switzerland to be my first big, outside-Italy weekend excursion this semester. What a great country to start with. Hiking, fresh Alpine air, chocolate, Swiss cottages, more chocolate – how could anyone go wrong?
“Interlaken” is German for “between lakes.” The name refers to the two lakes on either side of the city – Thun and Brienz. They’re connected by the Aare tributary, a pale blue river stretching from east to west. The waters (mostly Brienz and the Aare) are a distinct, exotic-looking turquoise color, somewhat reminiscent of the shallow and warm waters of the Caribbean. These waters are anything but shallow and warm, though. Their color comes instead from glacial deposits. The silt-like material left behind from the glacial movements reflects sunlight just so, making the waters look bright, light aqua.
My friends and I took an overnight bus on Thursday night with a tour company to get from Florence to Interlaken. I fell asleep quickly and managed to stay asleep for quite a while. (A lucky feat, given the circumstances. Note to self: avoid overnight buses.) However, when I did wake up, (around 3:30 AM) I saw the most magical sight I’ve ever seen.
Our bus was traveling through the Alps. I could see the peaks’ jagged, snow-capped shadows rising on both sides of the bus, and when I looked down, well, let’s just say my fear of heights was put to the test. We were snaking through winding mountain roads without a town or city in sight. The stars and the moon were the brightest I’ve ever seen – a detail I’m still not sure shouldn’t be attributed to our dramatically increased proximity to them.
We arrived at the hostel around 5:00 AM and took the next few hours to make up for the sleep we lost en route. When our alarms told us it was time for breakfast, we rose without regard to our less-than-routine sleep and were rewarded with a view to rival the one I was treated to earlier that morning. From the hostel’s terrace we could see Jungfrau Mountain, the 13,641′ snow-capped poster child of the Bernese Alps.
And yes, our hostel room had a terrace. Told you Switzerland was perfect.
Breakfast was provided by the hostel and we met our tour guides in the dining room to ask about the area. My friends and I were planning on hiking that day so our tour guides gave us information on nearby trails, how to get to the trailheads, and what to expect on the way. We set off for HarderKulm, an “easy-ish” hike with a panoramic view of Interlaken at the end.
4,337 feet and 3 hours later, we made it to the top.
We took the next few hours to explore the summit, take some photos and have a picnic. We could see all of Interlaken, both lakes, and so many of the surrounding mountains. (And even though we were on top of one, the others around us still looked huge.) On the side of the summit opposite the town, we could see grassy mountainsides dotted with picturesque Swiss cottages.
Back at the bottom, we were overcome with excitement at having hiked an Alp.
We headed into the town for a much-anticipated dinner, and afterwards, refreshed and full, we went for a walk to explore the area and its shops.
The next day we decided would be our lake day. Not to go swimming (though the glaciers have long since passed by, the water feels like they made their trip yesterday), but to explore. We set off toward Brienz, using the river as our guide, through a village of signature Swiss cottages. Talk about garden inspiration. It felt like we were walking through a fairy tale.
We made it to the lake’s shore around lunchtime, so, we figured, what a great place to eat. It was definitely the most beautiful lunch view I’ve ever experienced. After lunch, we took some time to just sit there and take it all in. I’m the type of person who typically likes to feel on-the-go, so stopping for those moments admittedly felt a little unnatural to me. But, as I learned by the end, its so important to appreciate what’s around you. Sometimes that means running around and seeing as much of it as possible, and other times that means taking a moment to just be a part of it. This time called for the latter.
The walk back was full of another host of surprises. The first – puppies. We were making our way toward the sandy part of the shore, when out of nowhere, two corgi puppies bounded out of a nearby covering to say hello. They were the friendliest and fluffiest dogs we’d seen since arriving in Europe last month. And everyone knows that few things make dog-deprived college kids happier than friendly, fluffy, corgi puppies.
We walked through a perfectly peaceful Swiss farm and said hello to the cows who lived there, remarking to each other that they seemed unnaturally happy. (Later that night, we were told that the reason Switzerland became famous for chocolate in the first place is because the “happy cows made happy milk,” which then made “happy chocolate.”)
We walked around the town for a little while, bought some chocolate to take back with us, and had another hearty Swiss dinner. Then, it was time for another bucket-list worthy experience – we took a Swiss chocolate making class.
The class was held at a fun, upbeat chocolate shop with a back room that doubled as a workshop space. We were each given aprons and chef hats to add to the fun. We started by tasting raw cacao beans and six different types of chocolate – two milk, three dark, and one white – while learning about each one. We learned to look for quality by the sound that the chocolate makes when it breaks, the health benefits of dark chocolate, and that white chocolate isn’t really chocolate at all. Then, it was time to make some chocolate.
We used a technique called tempering, a process of heating the chocolate, cooling it down, and heating it again to specific temperatures to ensure that when it cools, it does so smoothly. If it is done wrong (or not at all), chocolatiers run the risk of the cocoa butter separating from the chocolate – leaving their confections looking spotty.
Next came the fun part – decorating! We all made three chocolate bars. For the first, we used paper transfers to leave professional-looking designs on the chocolate. For the other two, we were free to use our imagination. My aesthetic strategy was more of a which-of-these-add-ins-look-the-most-tasty strategy, so I added a whole bunch of surprises in mine. In a few different sections, I added some orange pieces, sea salt, coconut flakes, fruity candy, and pieces of other types of chocolate. They might not have been the prettiest chocolate bars ever made, but they sure are delicious!
As we waited for our chocolate bars to cool off, we wandered over to a nearby field and watched the last of that day’s paragliders return to earth. With the morning haze long gone, we had a perfect view of Jungfrau, clearly outlined by the glow of the just-passed sunset. It was truly the perfect end to the perfect weekend in Switzerland.
Sunday was largely spent traveling, since we had to get back to Florence in time for Monday classes. Fortunately, though, to break up the drive, we stopped for four hours at the third largest lake in Italy – Lake Como. Largely renowned as one of the most beautiful in the country, the 90-square-mile lake is incredibly popular among tourists both Italian and from elsewhere. We rode a funicular up to the top of a hill to get a panoramic view of the lake, had some lunch, and enjoyed some gelato. We arrived back in Florence just before 9:00 PM that night.
Switzerland was everything I dreamed it would be and more. I’m so thankful to have been able to go, and so happy about all of the things we were able to do and see while there.
And while classes (as great as they are here) are certainly no Alpine hiking adventure, homework has gotten significantly more fun. Anything would, with a little bit of Swiss chocolate to help the process along!
Gelato Count: 25