Writer, Carla Waldemar takes us to Switzerland to discover all of the things we hoped to see… and all of the wonderful surprises and stories we didn’t know were awaiting us! 

Swiss Surprises monastery in Einseldein.

A monastery in Einseldein, Switzerland. Photo by Carla Waldemar.

Think “Switezland,” and think: chocolate, cheese, cuckoo clocks and watches, those must-have army knives—the gold-standard icons of a peaceful, well-run nation where unity prevails.

Oh, wait! What about the guy who launched an upheaval, egged on by civic leaders, that wreaked havic with the church? Tossed out many of its self-serving edicts, disbanded cathedrals, sent the clergy scurrying? Meet Huldrych Zwingli, as the country traces the 500th anniversary of its unique religious reformation, on the heels of reforms in neighboring Germany.

Zwingli was Switzerland’s Martin Luther, albeit even more liberal in his thinking, and Zurich is the place to which this former Catholic priest was summoned by its businessmen and politicos back in the early 1500s to spread the message of reform he’d been widely preaching. They were fed up with the Catholic Church’s excesses, and quickly adopted Zwingli’s sweeping changes. Among them: Abolish sales of indulgences and the opulent clerical lifestyle they provided. No more artwork glorifying saints. Nor celibacy.  Nor Latin (he, too, translated the Bible into laymen’s German). An end to ostentatious finery. Nein to excesses of alcohol and gambling. Begging was banned in favor of food and employment provided to the underclass. And the list goes on.

Churches were ceded to the city, starting with the glorious Fraumunster of 12th-century origin. Its abbess turned over the keys and promptly got married. Today her statue stands in the cloister, while inside glimmer the vivid stained-glass windows created by Marc Chagall in 1967. Nearby rises St. Peter’s, upon a Roman site—the first church built after the Reformation. Across the river, near the Wasserkirche—lit, this time, by Giacometti’s wondrous stained glass—behold Zwingli’s statue, clutching a scary sword. Follow the trail to his nearby home and Grossmunster Cathedral, where he preached his revolutionary message. Its massive bronze doors depict scenes from the reformer’s life. In the crypt looms a giant statue of the church’s founder, Charlemagne. (The house of a revolutionary of another sort—Lenin—abides in the ’hood, too.)

Shopping, a Swiss Surprise, in Old Town.

Shopping is all the more fun in charming Basel’s Old Town. Photo by Carla Waldemar.

Then forget those ecclesiastical altercations and simply wander the twisting alleys of Old Town, where today a cache of avant-garde designers offer knitwear, jewelry, home decor and more beneath the  half-timbered facades. Hidden among their gables you’ll find Opfechammer—Apple Chamber— the oldest wine café in town, serving its premier wines since 1801. We bellied up antique tables, thickly carved with diners’ names of centuries past, for an equally timeless feast of rosti potatoes and fat, sizzling bratwurst. Or choose a hearty lamb steak in mustard sauce, served with white-wine risotto and snippets of speck, following a hearty starter of hazelnut salad strewn with wild-boar sausage. Or head to Karl der Grosse, a cheery workingman’s lunch spot to savor meatloaf—a popular item in town—or savory vegetable soup and warming curry.

HausHitli stakes its claim as the oldest vegetarian restaurant not only in Zurich, but all of in Europe (think 1898), but its lively setting is anything but antique. Join the buffet line to choose among 100 tasty treats (no Spartan lineup of legumes, this), then linger weekends as it morphs into a music club.

Primp for an elegant supper at Zunfthaus zur Waag, on a site where a restaurant has existed since 1315 to serve the local guild of hatters. Today its fourth-generation owner excels in classic local favorites, from tender veal to venison with pears and Brussels sprouts aside spaetzle noodles. Start the party with roast duck liver in apple sauce. And don’t forego dessert, especially if it’s an exquisite plum tart abetted by vanilla ice cream and caramel sauce.  Stroll off the calories along neighboring Bahnhofstrasse, the Fifth Avenue of town.

Strolling from the train station, peek into the Swiss National Museum, whose fake-Gothic castle contains lodes of history. The Kunsthaus Art Museum celebrates the bold-name masters, starting with Rodin’s “Gates of Hell” on to Rubens, Rembrandt and Warhol, climaxing in two of Monet’s most pensive water lilies. The artists of tomorrow? Find them in the happening Zurich West ’hood, hotbed of all things avant.

Lovely Lucerne, an hour distant, (the excellent-value Swiss Travel Pass allows unlimited travel by train, tram, bus and boat) didn’t get the Reformation message. It remains a Catholic city, showcasing churches such as Hofkirche, a sweet Baroque beauty, and cozy St.-Peterskapelle, near the medieval Kornmarkt district, where ancient walls brim with historic frescoes.

Spanning the river flowing into Lake Lucerne are two covered bridges, twin symbols of the city. Each boasts a series of 17th-century roof panels—one, detailing Swiss history (yup, there’s William Tell) and the other, a cautionary lesson led by a dancing skeleton. Paintings of a modern thrust are celebrated in Sammlung Rosengart, boasting an entire floor of Picassos (including one commissioned by Mr. Rosengart of his daughter) and upstairs, Chagall, Matisse, Miro and more.

Engelberg monastery, a Swiss Surprise.

A monastery in Engelberg. Photo by Carla Waldemar.

The river tumbles into Lake Lucerne, where the newly-launched MS Diamant offers boat tours—ours, supplemented by a traditional winter dinner feast called raclette. Diners DIY it by scraping aromatic melting cheese over a hill of boiled potatoes. Add a gherkin pickle to clear your palate, then go back for more.

Pilgrims—either the pious, to visit the amazing Benedictine monastery, or athletic, keen to hike or ski the surrounding peaks—board trains for the hour’s jaunt to Einsiedeln, whose massive monastery dominates the tiny town. The breathtaking Baroque showpiece climaxes in a chapel dedicated to the famed Black Madonna, dressed for success in gilded couture. Daily, its monks offer Gregorian chants, and in summer, weekly organ concerts. (BTW, Zwingli served two years here before heading off to Zurich.) The monks’ Rococo library clasps priceless tomes such as the illuminated parchment volume created right here in 950 A.D. Break the short stroll back to the train station with a stop at the gingerbread bakery (and museum of past baking tools) just off the main drag to meet the ninth-generation bakers and sample why they continue to wow their customers.

Another hour-long train ride leads to Engelberg, famed equally for its ski slopes and its own Baroque monastery, gloriously rebuilt in 1729 after its founding in 1120. Affable Brother Benedikt, 28, one of its 27 monks, joined us in a warming lunch—pea soup, pasta— before guiding us through another wondrous library, whose treasures include a volume from 850 A.D. and age-old graffiti of a preening monk. Intricate inlaid wood is the handiwork of another talented brother. In the ornate white and gold chapel, where Mendelssohn once played the organ, Brother Benedikt wakens the pipes for guests. The brothers also own the property’s cheese shop, where we’re met by a horse-drawn sleigh for a tour of the snow-kissed valley beneath the slopes.

Sleigh rides are a Swiss Surprise.

Bundle up for a wonderful sleigh ride. Photo by Carla Waldemar.

Hop the train to Basel, pinpointing the spot on the Rhine where Switzerland shares borders with Germany and France. Those neighbors swarm to Basel to work in its booming pharma industry and savor its vibrant art scene in the city known as the most free-thinking in the land.

Erasmus, the liberal Dutch philosopher, published his translation of the New Testament here. Zionist Theodore Herzl stayed at its patrician Trois Rois Hotel, where in 1896 he staked his historic claim: “I founded the Jewish State here.” Napoleon stopped for lunch. So did Picasso.

If they’d ventured across the bridge, they might have dined in homey Restaurant Fischerstube, once headquarters for a bygone fishermen’s guild, where tender fillets of whitefish were joined by spaetzle or rosti (hard choice: I know. Who said traveling is easy?)  Or dipped bread cubes into bubbling melted cheese at Restaurant Kunsthalle Fondue Stubli. To depart in comfort, we were warned to stop with our forks one bite before we were sated, but who ever listens?

The Fondation Beyeler musem, one of the Swiss Surprises.

Fondation Beyeler, a stunning museum in Basel, Switzerland. Photo by Carla Waldemar.

Today it’s a roll call of world-renowned starchitects who’ve put their stamp on the city: Heurzog & de Meuron, Renzo Piano, and Frank Gehry, to name-drop a few. Basel’s renowned Kunstmuseum showcases contempo masters as well as a stellar collection of Holbein paintings and a retrospective of Marc Chagall, who adopted Basel as his home. The

Spaetzle, a Swiss surprise.

Warm and tasty spaetzle can be had at the marketplace hut in Basel. Photo by Carla Waldemar.

H & de M crew also put their stamp on Volkshaus Basel, a newly-smartened  bistro which soothes jetlag with the likes of pate and osso buco.

Ride Tram 6 to the end of the line to discover the heart-thumping Fondation Beyeler, home of modernists from Warhol to Picasso, Giacometti to Klee, in architect Piano’s lush setting lush with water lilies (Monet’s are inside).

Back in the historical center, the pink-stone Rathaus (Town Hall) sports overweight cherubs frolicking on its façade facing the Marktplatz, brimming with food stalls, while up the hill rises the Munster, Basel’s 13th-century cathedral, where Erasmus lies entombed. Stroll along the riverbank to the Papiermuseum, occupying a medieval mill where paper was once made, and still is. After viewing the evolution of the process, visitors are invited to produce their own.

When to visit? During Basel’s famous Art Fair. In December, when Christmas markets glimmer. In summer, when swimmers actually breast-stroke down the Rhine. Or any time you’re in need of Swiss bliss. For info on all three intriguing cities, visit www.MySwitzerland.com.



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