After the late night in Florence, with fireworks and terrible traffic meaning that bedtime wasn’t until waay too late, Tuesday morning (day fifteen) arrived a little too early for my liking. With sleepy eyes and decidedly un-bushy tails, we piled into the bus and started another long day of driving into Switzerland.
During the drive we stopped for a wee break in the small swiss city of Luzern. We had a look in a Swiss knife and watch shop where I successfully managed to resist the temptation to add a thirty-two function pocket knife to my collection. The rest of my group weren’t so lucky. Or perhaps they were just bloodthirsty little things wanting to have knives. One chick managed to cut herself within five seconds of owning her pocket knife.
The Luzern Lion Memorial
A famous Luzern bridge
After everyone had finished satisfying their knife fetishes, we continued on until late in the evening when we reached our destination deep within the Swiss Alp mountains – Lauterbrunnen.
Lauterbrunnen is similar to Hopfgarten in Austria in that it’s a small one-street kind of village set in a valley with beautiful snowy peaked mountains surrounding it. Lauterbrunnen was even prettier in that the steep mountain sides were really close to the village with multiple waterfalls cascading all around.
See the waterfall?!
The next day involved the most expensive excursion of the whole tour, a day-trip up to Jungfraujoch, the highest peak in Europe at 3500 feet. The weather can be really variable up in the mountains. Sometimes it can be very cloudy and snowy, stormy and raining, meaning that the excursion ends up being cancelled around half of the time. But we were really lucky in that it was a beautiful clear sunny day for us.
To get up to the peak, we travelled by train winding around and crawling up the mountain sides for a couple of hours. It was pretty chilly on the way up travelling through the layers of cold white cloud clinging to the mountains. But at the top, wow what a view! It was literally just like a postcard being so perfect and stunningly beautiful. My heart swelled to overflowing with all the gorgeous breath-taking scenery. Or maybe that was the dizziness from getting a little bit of altitude sickness.
The photos really don’t do the mountains any justice. Take a look at the above photos and calculate the amount of beauty in them. Then multiple that number by a million and you’ll know how overwhelmingly magnificent it was for me.
With so much snow, there was only one thing to do with it! Sledging of course. I had never sledged in snow before but found it to be so much fun. Something about flying uncontrollably down a slope on a bit of plastic screaming your head off just really appealed to me. There were options to go skiing and snowboarding too, but meh, I can do that anytime. Everyone else seemed to think the same as the allocated ski/board slope was untouched snow, with dozens of pits and dips from all the sledders on the other slope. The pits and dips did make for a bit of excitement. I may have smashed reasonably hard into a kid that had stopped halfway down the slope. In my defence though, it’s really hard to steer a sledge. And he didn’t cry much. I saw some spectacular wipeouts with one chick flying off her sledge so hard that she lost a shoe. Another one had two people on a sledge. On wiping out at one of the pits, the back person landed on the front person and slid/rode them a way down the slope. It was so much fun. I had a big grin on my face the whole time, and must have added a few new wrinkles to my smile lines with all the laughing so hard at everything.
I was in a group of four with Shelley and two new good friends from the tour group called Jodie and Shiralee. Shiralee had never seen snow before so we all had fun pelting her with snowballs and making snow angels. I think the best moment was when I managed to get snow down the back of Jodie’s pants. I’ll remember her shocked expression forever.
Jodi and Shiralee barely survived their run
Shelley at the start of a run
I could have happily spent all day sledging. Especially since with each run I would get more confident, so could go faster and faster, and not need to use my feet to brake. But we thought we’d better check out the other main attraction of the peak after spending so much money to get up there.
The other Jungfraujoch attraction is known as the ice palace. It is famous enough to have been featured on the travel channel. It contains ice sculptures. The neat thing is that even the floors and walls are also made of ice too.
Then it was time to catch the train and descend down through the fluffy clouds back to the hostel in time for dinner. Some of the group went paragliding and I spotted them swirling and gliding through the air on the way down. If you look in this photo, you can see tiny little coloured dots.
In an earlier post I talked about how I missed out my chance to paraglide in Austria as the paragliding ended up being cancelled for the afternoon. After a lot of thinking, I decided to give Swiss paragliding a miss. It’s not a cheap activity to do, and being on this tour and doing so many different activities and sights every day (only some things are included in the original cost of the tour), I have been burning through my travel money faster than expected. It is really easy to get caught up in the excitement and spend a lot of money on souvenirs and eating out. European clothes shopping is also amazing and terribly tempting. To give you an approximate idea of cost, I think I have spent about NZ$2000 extra on this tour above the base cost of the tour itself (NZ$3300). Over half of that is just on the extra optional excursions that Contiki offers. The rest would be food, using the bathroom (it’s not free in Europe!), tipping, and some other cultural activities like entering churches. Doing things like paragliding, white water rafting (which I did in Austria and forgot to mention in that post), the Jungfraujoch peak train journey, big group dinners and cruises are all so much fun as well as being unforgettable experiences. But the cost adds up.
One thing Contiki does help with though is that by consistently booking in so many large groups with each business, it generates a discount for each person. For example, the sex show in Amsterdam usually costs £45 but we were able to buy our tickets for £32 each (about a 30% discount). Although I am trying to be more conservative with my spending, as I have to think about leaving money for the rest of my planned two year OE trip, I figured too that even with doing return trips to each cities, it is still cheaper to do some of these activities now with the Contiki discount than to do it as an individual on my return.
That said, there are still ways to save money. Going solo and not doing a big guided tour is one. Staying in cheaper hostel dorm type accommodation definitely reduces costs. As does being picky with eating out. Choosing a smaller cafe or street food does work out cheaper than the five course meal at a big fancy traditional restaurant. Often you get a more authentic cultural taste of the food at smaller places too. I’m finding having a backpack is a godsend too. The majority of Contiki hostel accommodations haven’t had elevators. I’ve loved being able to easily zip past all my tour mates dragging their hefty suitcases up many flights of stairs. This includes Shelley with her suitcase that is large enough to fit me inside it! And yes I have tested that. I also have very limited space inside the pack so it is much easier to resist buying souvenirs and more clothing. Instead I’ve resorted to allowing myself to buy things to ‘upgrade’ items already in the pack, then those ‘old’ items get the biff. And I only do this on rare occasions. At last weigh-in, my backpack weighed fourteen kg which is still a little heavier than I’d ideally like.
Anyway I digress from my original line of thinking. As I was saying, basically this tour is freaking expensive. I also wanted to maximise my time up on Jungfraujoch peak after spending quite a bit of money to get up there. So I decided to give paragliding a miss this time. I don’t regret it as it meant I didn’t have to cut short my sledging time in order to make it back to the hostel early for paragliding (a few of my tour mates had to do this). My Jungfraujoch day is still the best day of the tour so far.
Overall I loved Switzerland. One thing to keep in mind though is that things are expensive here. The Swiss have one of the highest average paid salaries in the world with quite a low tax rate, meaning that the cost of things is naturally higher. Shiralee brought a set of *basic* gloves, scarf and beanie for £60 (about NZ$100) from the shop. As much as she was spitting about the price that night, the next day up in a cold snowy mountain she didn’t regret it at all. A chocolate bar costs about NZ$3 here (double the price back home). It is a beautiful country here very similar to parts of New Zealand. Big beautiful glacial blue lakes with snowy topped mountains and lush greenery make it a stunning place to visit in summer. I look forward to seeing it again when I return in winter next year.
Final verdict – spectacular!