Switzerland: Mountains, Luxury, and Chocolate

December 29, 2015
Eric Anderson, MD & Nancy Anderson, RN

Switzerland is known for its luxury, and the mountainous paradise doesn't disappoint.

On a continent ravaged by centuries of war, Switzerland stands, to most eyes, as elegant, untarnished, even immaculate as if the whole world is a Skid Row flophouse and Switzerland is a crisp, crackling bank note. Persons with that view might ask their favorite search engine questions such as “Has Switzerland ever been invaded?” (Yes in 1798 by the French revolutionary forces before the Vienna congress of 1815 installed the Swiss confederation.)

More specific questions regarding Word War II receive a wide range of responses as is typical of Internet chatter, but we thought Yahoo Answers gave that query a thoughtful response here.

Graham Greene, the script writer for the movie based on his novel The Third Man, says the cynicism expressed by Orson Welles’ character was actually ad-libbed by Welles himself. Welles looked at a continent at constant war for 1,000 years then said, “In Switzerland they had brotherly love, 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock!

Unfair! When we arrive from our Warsaw Lot Polish Airlines flight in Geneva we are surrounded with expensive watches and jewelry, upscale clothing and designer chocolates and that’s just in the complex that joins the airport to the train station. We can’t imagine what we might see in the main streets of Switzerland’s second largest city.

Most people are not shoppers but travelers going with the flow. Like fans leaving a sports event or a theater show, all are moving together; it’s easy to find the railway station, just follow the crowd. It’s actually easier than that. The Swiss Travel System is a national integrated system where one inclusive ticket is unified with bus schedules, the times of other trains, of city transportation, and even the schedules of ferry boats across lakes and of trains climbing up mountains.

Isabella Ignacchiti Drueke, market manager North America and International Media Development at Swiss Travel System AG, says the system has so many components, all integrated, that at any given time on every half-kilometer along its tracks, somewhere within its network one of its forms of transportation is making a stop.

We ask Ms. Drueke why she feels the Swiss Travel System is so special. She gives us a puzzled look as if we have to be pulling her leg or somehow not be perceptive about reality. She does not mention the efficiency and competence of Swiss engineering. She senses that is a given. It is. She wants to talk about the world around us. Switzerland’s scenery and train travel as an experience. Such variety. You can fly to Zurich easily from the United States then take the train east to St. Moritz if you are a ski enthusiast, or take it south to Lucerne or Interlaken if you love the lakes or take it to the west to Bern if you enjoy history; Bern was founded in 1191, one of the eleven UNESCO world heritage sites in Switzerland.

A Swiss village. The famous Swiss train that arguably travels the prettiest part of Europe. Lucerne in all its charm. The celebrated Schillerstein Rock that was given to Friedrich Schiller, “the bard of William Tell” for his 100th birthday.

Ms. Drueke is warming up about what her train system can do. You can go all the way west to Geneva which now has a surprise, a Charlie Chaplin Museum or all the way up north to Basel, a city so clean that you can swim in the Rhine. But what makes her so thrilled with her country and its train services if that the train can take you to remote places surrounded by magnificent scenery where you can stay for a week alone with Nature, if you wish, for the cost of a night in a Swiss city.

And the Swiss Travel System is special because the carriages have such large windows which give a grand view of the landscape. You can actually have four seasons in one train travel and enjoy it all with enthusiastic train travelers who would find no WiFi in the mountains as something positive. Something else positive is what a Swiss traveler said to us about his train system, “We don’t employ French train workers so we don’t hear calls for “la grève — the strike!”

We’ve just flown LOT Polish Airlines from Warsaw to Geneva. Comfortably. The distance was not great and we were sitting in our train within 30 minutes. The train moved off within five minutes which is not reassuring for Americans who say to themselves, “Oh dear what if we hadn’t been sitting here five minutes ago. We’d have missed the train!” Europeans don’t think that way; they are confident from an experience Americans never get from their own pathetic public transportation that indeed another train will be coming by in a jiffy.”

Lausanne, on one of the most magnificent lake locations in Switzerland, has attracted famous visitors for centuries from Mozart in 1766 and Napoleon in 1880 to more recently a pregnant Rita Hayworth in 1949 and a similarly pregnant Audrey Hepburn in 1970 both to have their babies in Switzerland. We are so used to hearing about the world coming to the USA to have its babies that it’s almost odd to hear of Americans rejecting that choice.

Charles Dickens (1812-1870) lived here for six months accompanied by his wife, six children, and four servants. Another Charlie, one called Chaplin (1889-1977) lived here for 25 years — four of his youngest children were born in Lausanne. And of course both Voltaire (“I owe my happiest days to this town,”) and Victor Hugo (who repeatedly declared he loved the view from the esplanade of the Cathedral) were charmed visitors.

But who wouldn’t be charmed to come to Lausanne? We seem to understand that location is a three-fold advantage for a hotel or restaurant but why do we not realize it is an asset for a city, too? Who would not love this city on the lake, a city with a view, a city with flair, with style, with such elegance?

The Lausanne Palace and Spa on an elevation looks out over Lake Geneva. Beyond, as night falls, we see the mountains of France. In the dawn the soft light of sunrise.

For once Google Maps did not give the full picture. It seemed a breeze going from the railway station the mere 500 hundred yards to our hotel, the Lausanne Palace & Spa — at the time of our visit celebrating its hundredth year in Switzerland! We like to show how independent and capable we are writing for a publication that does not pay expenses and how easy it is to walk in European cities even hauling wheeled luggage on cobblestones but this route was quite a climb. We unbelievably surrendered. We took a cab. We think we would have been the only guests in its history to have walked up from the station.

Once you have dropped your bags everything is close around you. You then find that your stay at the Palace qualifies you for public transport with easy access to the train station and the water’s edge. And an Olympic monument reminds you the Olympic museum is in Lausanne.

An inexpensive sail along the north shore of Lake Geneva sounded like a two hours luxury in Lausanne. To our delight the fare on this ship, newly commissioned from the pier, included beer and a light lunch.

The Henri-Dunant was not crowded. The view was perfect. The bottom image is a combined one (in case you think we were passed by a whaling boat). Jean Henri Dumant, after whom the boat is named, was a Swiss business man (1828-1910) who founded what became the International Red Cross. “He advocated for many other causes for a better world, including arguing for disarmament, the creation of a world library, and the formation of an international court.” He was awarded the first Nobel Peace Prize in 1901.

It was just a simple boat trip but the serendipity was out of all proportion to how unassuming the two-hour cruise was.

Views of the Lausanne Palace Spa and two of the smiles at the front desk.

The hotel really did seem like a palace: The suites were large and substantial with lots of natural light and with comforts guests don’t get in today’s newly built hotels such as a press to put a crease in your pants, and umbrellas for every occupant. The suite had a reclining sofa beside the bed in case your jetlag hit you before it really was before bedtime. The balcony provided a grand vista of Lake Geneva.

A suite in Switzerland about the size of our condo in California.

A balcony with a view all the way to the mountains of France. Several restaurants including one favored by Bertrand Piccard, the balloon aeronaut; Luc Besson, the film director and producer; Gerard Depardieu, the actor, and Mick Jagger and his Rolling Stones. And quiet elegance and chocolate!

One could argue that if a hotel has been a successful resort for a century it must have been doing something right, but there must be more than that; the hotel has had time to respond to the changes over the decades as styles and fortunes change.

Many websites claim to know which cities are the wealthiest in the world. Results vary. One website, Luxatic.com, seems a bit pretentious but claims that of the top 10 wealthiest cities in the world, the first three are in Monaco and Switzerland with the percentage of millionaires in Monaco, Zurich, and Geneva being respectively 29.21%, 27.34% and 17.9%. Maybe that’s why they can have upscale attractions.

We asked the General Manager, Mr. Jean-Jacques Gauer, how a resort has to change over the years. ”It is a fact that some of the old elegance is losing its way,” he says. “People can fly one day in a low cost airline then the next day in first class [such choices!] but this is still the era of beautiful cars and watches and for high-end hotels.

“Yet if it is an expensive hotel, you have to deliver. You have to meet the expectations of guests. People are more educated that before. They know what value is.”

“And what is value?” we ask.

“Value is a good experience at a reasonable price,” GM Gauer says. “Here’s how I see it: A quality hotel offers authentic honesty. It believes there’s a truth in that if guests come back it’s a sign of success. Indeed if I like a place myself I will comeback, not if I’m offended. A hotel has to establish trust with the local community. I have two sons in the business and they are doing well because they were taught well. They know to have one eye on the customer and one eye on the staff. A manager should have one mouth, two eyes -- and listen!”

Sounds about the same advice for young doctors running their office especially when Mr. Jean-Jacques Gauer adds this, “The internet has become the enemy of the concierge!”

Photography by the authors

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the New Hampshire Academy of Family Physicians, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.