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Holidays to Switzerland Travel Podcast Episode 2 Transcript

May 10, 2024 Last Updated on May 10, 2024

Tips and advice for first-time travellers to Switzerland

You can see the full show notes and listen to this episode > here.

Hello, and welcome to episode 2 of the Holidays to Switzerland Travel podcast. Today, I have the great pleasure of speaking with Birgit Weingartner, the Marketing Manager for Switzerland Tourism in Australia. Hi, Birgit. Thanks for joining me today. It’s lovely to have you here talking to us about Switzerland. Now, I believe you’ve lived in Australia now for a number of years working with Switzerland Tourism. But whereabouts in Switzerland are you actually from?

Hi, Carolyn. Thank you for having me on the show today. I’ve been in Australia now for how many years? That’s probably 14 years. But I grew up in Switzerland in the northern part, very close to Zurich, a little town called Meilen on the Lake of Zurich. So only about 15 minutes away from downtown Zurich on public transport.

Wonderful. So you’ve had that rural upbringing with the proximity of the city?

Absolutely. So I grew up next to a farm with a lot of sheep, which is beautiful with the sheep bells every morning. But it’s a beautiful part. And that’s probably all over Switzerland. Everything is so close in comparison to Australia. It’s a rural area where I grew up, 20 minutes on public transport on you in the biggest city of Switzerland with 450,000 people, which is still small. It is definitely other big cities around the world.

Excellent. Now, what can first time travellers expect when they visit Switzerland? We’ve all seen those beautiful photos on Instagram and scenes on TV that just take breath away. Is that the real Switzerland?

I think it’s even better than that. A lot of people have this picture perfect images from Instagram in their head. But once they actually get to Switzerland, they really, really say that it’s actually a lot more. The landscapes are just gorgeous. The towns are very quaint and cute, and it’s very easy to navigate around Switzerland on public transport. I think you shouldn’t go with a lot of expectations as on any It’s a big trip. I think with Switzerland, you get everything and more.

Yes, I definitely agree with that. And a country that has so many extremely high mountains, more than 1,500 lakes, the green of the fields and things is just what always takes my breath away. It’s just so lush, even in the middle of summer. And as you say, wherever you look, you’ve seen on Instagram, it’s better in real life.

It is. Absolutely. And we’ve got the beauty in Switzerland with all the mountains, we’ve got all the beautiful glacier water. So we’ve got a lot of lakes, and they’re super clean. A lot of lakes, mountain lakes and lakes down in the flatlands as well. It just makes it really green. And with the contrast of the mountains as backdrops, it’s just picture perfect.

Yes, definitely. Now, you mentioned that people shouldn’t have such high expectations when you go to visit a country for the first time. But I think one of the exciting things about visiting a new country is learning about the culture and the customs and the different foods that that entails. You shouldn’t go to another country expecting to eat exactly what you eat at home because what’s the point of travelling? So what can you tell us about the different customs and the foods that you enjoyed in Switzerland?

Oh, absolutely. I think in everyone’s life, food is very important. And in Switzerland, exactly same. With our four different official language areas in Switzerland, it comes, of course, with different gourmet directions. So with the French, Italian, German, and Romansch language area, They’ve got different cultures, and with those cultures, they’ve got different food and recipes. So for example, where I grew up in Zurich, we’ve got this beautiful original Zurich geschnatzel. It’s called. It’s a beautiful veal ragu in a creamy mushroom sauce, Zurich style, and normally served with the crusty Rösti, which is very unique for the area where I grew up.

But then, for example, you go south to the Ticino, the Italian part, their original polenta is done on a fireplace, on an open fire, the traditional way. So you only get that polenta down in Ticino. And a lot of people, for example, my mum, if she likes to have an original polenta, she hops on a train two and a half hours south from Zurich, goes for lunch in Lugano, and comes back in the evening. So that’s how we do it in Switzerland.

That’s the ultimate… Well, it’s not even a takeaway, is it? But that’s awesome.

But that’s the beauty of the country. It’s a smallish country. It’s from north to south. It’s probably three hours on public transport and from west to east, four hours on public transport. So if you see when there’s rain in the north and you see past the Alps in the south, it’s beautiful. Hop on a train, two and a half hours, and you’re in the sun. That’s exactly what the Swiss do. You just adjust to the outdoors.

Yeah. What a perfect idea. Now, could you tell me about fondue? Many people are often keen to try fondue because they’ve heard of it. What can you tell us about fondue? Is it readily available?

It is. Absolutely everywhere. Fondue is… Probably you can eat fondue for No, no, no, no, just joking. Cheese is very important in our country. There’s cheese everywhere, and there’s the variety of cheese product is enormous. So fondue, for example, you normally eat it outdoors because it’s quite a smelly affair, as you might know. But in all the mountain villages, when you go for a hike in the mountain hop, or even in the cities in traditional restaurants or guild houses, they serve the traditional fondue or a raclette or the beautiful sausages with the rösti.

Delicious. You’re making me hungry.

It’s lunchtime, isn’t it?

We couldn’t talk about food in Switzerland without mentioning one of my favourites, chocolate. Just like cheese, there’s many different producers chocolate in Switzerland, isn’t there?

Yes, there is. So we probably all know the one big one we have in Switzerland, but other than that, which is beautiful as well. But we’ve got a lot of boutique little chocolatiers in Switzerland. In almost every city, you’ll find their own chocolatier, a small boutique shop with a chocolatier, and they even offer chocolate workshops. So just to go online and Google around, it is a completely different set up to the big corporations. And it’s absolutely worth it because the chocolate is different in every chocolate place. So If you’re into chocolate, Switzerland is the destination to go and do a chocolate course. It’s quite amazing.

Yeah. And you get that really unique taste and unique experience.

It’s just melting away. There’s nothing rough. Well, you need to experience it.

Yeah, exactly. You touched on just before about the different languages in Switzerland, and there’s four official languages. So can you just tell us a little bit about which parts of Switzerland all those different languages are spoken in?

So it’s the German or the Swiss German is the main spoken language in Switzerland. So in Switzerland, we’ve got 26 cantons. So the cantons is probably the equivalent to the states we have here in Australia. So in 19 out of these 26 cantons, it’s the Swiss German speaking part. So you see it’s quite German dominated. But then we’ve got about 25 % it’s French, which is the western part of the country, the Swiss Romande. And then within there’s a little, we call it, in between the Swiss Romande, the French part and the German part, they’re bilingual. They’re three cantons, they’re bilingual. So that’s Bern, Fribourg, and the Valais. So they speak both languages.

And then the smaller part is the Italian Ticino part with the Southern valleys in the canton Graubunden as well, which is around the eight % So you see it’s a very small percentage Italian. But then the fourth, which not many people know, we’ve got Romansch, which is Latin-based language. And that’s only spoken in the mountains, in in the east, in St. Moritz, Grisons area. And that’s only a half % of the Swiss population can actually speak the language.

Okay. And so it’s obviously spoken all time by the people that live there. Is there any, are you concerned that that language will die out like some other unique languages have?

Absolutely. There is concern, but it is the official language, so it gets taught at school, which is amazing. Well, the government made sure in those cantons that that is protected, but still people move away from the areas, and it’s unfortunate it is going to die out in the near future. But as long as you have it, it’s an absolutely gorgeous, gorgeous language. You should go on YouTube and listen to it. There’s a couple of good clips on YouTube. It’s just something very unique.

Sounds excellent. Now, a worry that some travellers, if they haven’t visited Switzerland or even Europe before, is how are they going to get on if they only speak English? Now, I know personally, when I go to a new country, I like to at least greet a shopkeeper or someone with the local language. But is that enough to get you by?

I would say in the main areas, everyone speaks English. That’s not a problem at all. In the mountains, all the tourism organisations, there you go through with English. That’s not a problem. And then when you go into little smaller towns in the villages up in the mountains, you just go on with your hand, point of things as people do here, and they don’t speak English. That’s right. You always get around. And they’re very helpful. Because Swiss, no, nobody speaks their language. So they always have to adjust. If it’s Italian, French, German, high German, English, I I think with English, there’s no problem at all. Okay, great.

I know often my husband speaks German fluently, so I can often just deflect to him and let him make the conversation. But there have been times when I’ve gone into a shop by myself and I thought, no, I’m going to practise. I can do it. I can do it. So I get the words and I ask the question, what does this cost? And then they answer me in English.

They switch instantly, don’t they? That’s in our system, because we don’t expect anyone to switch to Swiss German.

And obviously my attempt was fairly poor. So they knew I wasn’t a natural speaker.

It’s a bit upsetting, isn’t it? You try hard and you know you can do it, but they don’t even give you the chance. No.

Now, another thing, too, and a lot of the listeners and the readers of the website are from the United States where tipping plays a big part in their everyday life. That’s not such a big thing in Switzerland, is it?

No, it’s not. You never have to worry about tipping in Switzerland, really. Tips are generally included in the price. So you can, as it is here in Australia, you can, if you’d like to add a smile on someone’s face, you can always round up to the nearest franc of the round figure. That’s the normal thing you do anyway. But tipping as such is not expected.

Okay. Now, I’d like to spend a bit of time chatting about the public transport system, because there’s no doubt that in Switzerland, it’s out of this world, and definitely one of the best public transport systems ever invented, I’m sure. So what can you tell us about that?

Well, it is always on time, and that is on time. When a timetable says that transport system, if it’s a train, a tram, a boat, goes 17 past 10, it goes 17 past 10. So for us, we have a really good system with the Swiss Travel Pass. For our foreign travellers coming to Switzerland, we offer Swiss Travel Pass, which is a public transport pass that is not only for the trains, it incorporates a lot more. So it covers you on trains, on buses, on the trams in the city, on the boats, on the lake. And you get quite a good discount on the mountain railways as well. Up to 50 % of most mountain railway systems, a few exceptions there.

It is a real comprehensive Swiss Travel Pass to get around. So it means it’s a hop on, hop off. You don’t need to worry about tickets. It’s available in first or second class. And in general, you don’t need a seat reservation in Switzerland. That’s the easy part of it. So when you have a beautiful breakfast in the morning at a hotel or wherever you stay, and you just feel this is just beautiful, we should stay a bit longer and take the train an hour later.

You can do that in Switzerland because you just hop on every half an hour, there’s another train. So you don’t need to be locked in every day of your journey in Switzerland. The only exception is a beautiful panoramic scenic train. Because they’re very, well, let’s say, very well-booked. So you need your seat reservation on those. So you probably heard of the Glacier Express, the Bernina Express, those. That’s the only exception where you need a seat reservation.

Okay. So if someone is coming to visit Switzerland, they can do all their travel just using the public transport, even up into the mountain villages and the smaller rural towns.

Absolutely. Well, the government says, whoever lives in Switzerland needs to be able to go home by public transport. And that’s pretty much what the Swiss Travel Pass covers. So every village in the mountains, there would be access by a train, by a, probably not tram in the mountains, but by a bus, and that would be covered to the village.

Excellent. Now, can we just talk a bit more about the Glacier Express? Because it’s one of the most famous panoramic trains, and it’s, I think, known as the slowest express train in the world.

It is.

Yeah. What can you tell us about that journey?

So the Glacier Express connects Zermatt and St. Moritz. It is the slowest Express train in the world. It takes about seven and a half hours to do the whole journey. It can be broken up. You can do parts of it. So you can break it up, let’s say, in Andermatt, which is halfway. You can start in Zermatt or the other way around. There is full service on the train. So there’s a three-class system. So there’s second-class, first class and there’s Excellence-class. So in Excellence-class, it’s just a carriage, panoramic carriage with less seats. It’s only 20 seats. And it’s the full concierge service included, where you get a five course meal with the wines and drinks to go with it with everything. Very exclusive, but beautiful. Really, really nice.

First class, the same. You have your dinners or your lunch in your seat. You can order a la carte, if you like, or you can pre order your meal, whatever suits best. And the same in second class. So if So the food is served, but there’s also a bar carriage, where you can get your drinks and food as well.

Okay, wow. That excellence class definitely sounds like something to aim for.

It is amazing.

And on the regular train, so if you’re on an intercity train, for instance, say you’re going from Zurich to Interlaken or to Geneva or one of the other major cities, what’s the big difference there between the first and second class on the trains?

Between first and second class, it’s probably the amount of seats a carriage. So in second class, it’s rows of four and four, where in first class, it’s only two seats on one side and four on the other side. So you’ve got more leg space and you’ve got more space for your luggage. It’s the seats are bigger and you probably have less families in the carriages in first class.

Okay, good. Well, that’s given us a very good overview of Switzerland. And I’d like to ask you, if you were speaking to someone who was off to Switzerland for the very first time, what are the top five things that you would recommend they see or do?

It’s a hard one, isn’t it?

There’s so many. You can’t really stop at five, can you?

Yeah, there’s so many. For me, the most important part is you haven’t seen Switzerland if you haven’t been to the mountains. You need to have some active enjoyment in the great outdoors. So if it’s only a day trip from one of the bases, you might base yourself in Zurich or Lucerne, but please do a day trip, better a three-day trip, but do a day trip, go up with a cable car, have an hour or two, have a small walk around a mountain lake, and and the best part in Switzerland, wherever there goes a gondola up, there’s a restaurant on top. So you can have your lunch up there and take it all in. I think that’s a priority one. You need to take some time in the mountains.

Definitely.

Then what I did last year, I did a wonderful, wonderful trip. I did a five day long distance hiking trip for someone who is really keen to get into the great outdoors. And you can sleep in mountain huts in between the hikes, which is absolutely amazing. So you’re between 2000 and 3000 metres above everything and you see across to Italy, France, to Germany. And it’s such a life changing experience.

Incredible.

It’s incredible. What I always would suggest, when you do a day trip to the mountains, come back to the base in Lucerne. If it’s summer, go swimming in the lake. Absolutely amazing. The water is crystal clear. And while you swim, you’ve got the city in the back. And to the other side, you actually see the mountains where you’ve been in the morning or during the day. Great experience.

It would be, definitely.

Absolutely. When you go in winter, half a day, if you ski, go up to the mountains again, try to have a ski experience, get yourself a ski instructor just for two hours. They provide everything. They provide the ski gear, the material, your lovely instructor, and just give it a go. It’s amazing. It’s fun and it’s safe. But it’s that outdoor active enjoyment. And I always try to do something for the first time when I go somewhere. Absolutely. It gives you that special memory.

And imagine telling your friends that the first time you tried skiing was in the Swiss Alps.

Absolutely. With the backdrop, imagine you’ve got the Matterhorn in the back. It’s just amazing.

Perfect.

Yeah, I can go on and on. That sounds great. Maybe one more?

Yeah, please.

The cities in summer, they’ve got a lot of Bädis, we call them. That’s little bath houses along the lakes and in the rivers. They’re amazing. How exhausting a city trip can be when you spend all day in the city walking around, looking at the beautiful churches and galleries and shops. At the end of the day, hop in the lake, and those bathhouses turn into bars in the evening. In Zurich, for example, you go to those Bädis, you hop in the lake, and then they convert in a bar. So you don’t need to put something on top of your swimmers and get your drink and have your feet dangling in the water and relax at the end of the day. Great experience.

It would be in the perfect ending to a day where you walked and walked.

Yeah, absolutely.

Wonderful. Well, thank you so much. You’ve given us so much to think about and so many more activities and things to add to the itinerary for the next trip to Switzerland, or indeed, the first trip to Switzerland for some of our listeners.

It’s my pleasure.

So thank you so much for sharing your experiences and your suggestions with us today.

Thank you for having me on the show. That was fantastic. Your homepage is very comprehensive. Your listeners know where to look for more experiences and more tips.

Thank you very much.

Thank you, Carolyn.

Have a great day.

Thank you so much.

You can see the full show notes and listen to this episode > here.