Switzerland 40 years on

We lived in Switzerland in the 80s (and a couple of years either side). Clare and Charles were both born there and we bought a house. We had a good life but then the world changed and we moved on.

We’ve been back a few times, me on business and Juni and I for short trips. Earlier this month I returned for a week when I joined Great Railway Journeys Glacier Express winter holiday. Juni told me to go on my own. ‘I don’t do cold weather holidays’ she said. Fair enough.

I kept a diary, I do this whenever I go away, and on the final day I listed the five highlights:

  1. The cathedral in Strasbourg (we had a free morning on Strasbourg on the journey out);
  2. The Swiss railway system (of course);
  3. The restaurant il Vino in Chur;
  4. Viewing the Matterhorn; and
  5. The ubiquity of smartphone technology.

They’ve all got links to the past and to some extent exemplify how Switzerland, has changed yet remained the same over the years.

The cathedral in Strasbourg

This is stretching the theme of this blogpost of course because it’s not obviously about Switzerland. The cathedral is mind-blowing and although I couldn’t go inside (it was a Sunday so reserved I guess for worshippers) I did climb the 300 plus steps to the viewing platform which is awesome.

The Swiss connection came shortly afterwards when I crossed the Place Gutenberg close by where I had a strong sense of deja vu. We had of course been to Strasbourg in the late 80s/early 90s as we followed Clare’s football team at a tournament there. Juni, Charles and I had dinner in the city on the Saturday evening and I’m convinced that we had dined at one of the restaurants, either the Au Gutenberg or the Aux Armes de Strasbourg.

The Swiss railway system

In the 80s the Swiss railway system was the envy of all. It connected everywhere, it ran frequent, punctual trains and it was easy to use. It also had a clean and consistently applied livery which provided a visual thread to connect everything which it did.

As far as I could see this year nothing has changed. The strong branding is still there and unchanged and it remains a pleasure to use it. Part of this pleasure I’m sure derives from the fact that it is so easy to use from the simple fare structure to the system of connections provided by a timetabling philosophy implemented in 1982: ‘wir fahren mit Tackt’ or we travel with rhythm (or similar).

The restaurant il Vino in Chur

You have always been able to eat out and get good value food in Switzerland but in the 80s in the German speaking cantons this inevitably meant a standard fare of Swiss German specialties which would have reflected the culture of the region. That meant some dishes I really enjoyed from Bauernbratworst mit Rosti to the excellent fresh water fishes Egli, Zander and Hecht. I also enjoyed the game dishes when they were in season and the ritual of Forellen Blau.

The only exceptions then would have been Italian restaurants but now it’s all changed. It still looks like Italian restaurants are the best option but there are now the ethnics we are so used to in the UK. However there are still many restaurants that continue to offer the standard menus albeit with pizzas and hamburgers on the menu as a concession to 21st century demand.

On this trip I enjoyed Italian food at il Vino in Chur, at the Pizzeria Grottino in Arosa, at la Terrasse du Suisse in Poschiavo and at the Banhofbuffet (!) in Zermatt. I enjoyed more traditional Swiss food at the Hotels Adler and Bernerhof in Kandersteg and a rather different approach at Flavour’s (sic) in Chur.

Viewing the Matterhorn

Switzerland is nothing if not mountains and that means snow and skiing.

I came to skiing late of course and was never very good but both Clare and Charles learnt as small children and skied with confidence. Clare would always seek out the most difficult part of the piste whilst Charles would simply ski as fast as possible straight down the middle!

We lived in Richterswil in the Zurichsee which is hardly a ski centre but we were within a 30 minute or so drive of ski runs up to 2000m and that meant we could go skiing on a Sunday morning and be home for lunch when the piste was getting rather busy.

On this trip I did not ski of course but I did note that those who do now all wear helmets. That’s completely new, in my time it was just the children. I wonder is this is the Michael Schumacher effect?

The ubiquity of smartphone technology

In the 80s smartphones did not exist period. In fact mobile phones hardly existed and were called car phones in those days because the batteries were so big you couldn’t realistically carry a phone on your person. And in the same era although credit cards might have been widely used elsewhere that was not the case in Switzerland which was almost 100% a cash society.

All change now of course. Everyone has a smartphone and every establishment takes credit cards even for low value transactions like a cup of coffee. Your phone is also used to provide proof that you’ve been jabbed, thank you for the NHS app, which was checked at every establishment that you enter.

It’s not a highlight but I would make one further observation: the Swiss are still very Swiss, they do like their rules. From the lady on the train who suggested that I did not take a reserved seat even though it was clearly not going to be occupied to the hotel manager who insisted that we only sit at specified tables for our breakfast there was lots of evidence that the more things change the more they remain the same.

And finally I was pleasantly surprised that I quickly tuned into the Swiss German that I heard spoken. I would never claim any sort of fluency in the language but I can just about understand enough for the basics of life. Methinks it’d be good to return when it’s warmer and to continue my reacquaintance with a country of which I have so many fond memories.


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