One of the best parts of long-term travel is the flexibility in deciding where you want to go, what you’re going to do, and how in hell you’re going to get there. Without a real rush to get anywhere, or being fenced in by reservations, we are able to linger for a day or two as we see fit. Sometimes it’s because we need a few more days to see everything we want to see. Other days it’s because we have no idea what to do next. It’s a surprisingly daunting task to decide where to go when buses in every direction cost $5-$10. Beginning this trip we decided only to plan out the broad strokes, chasing the warm weather through Europe, Asia, and eventually landing in Australia. We left the nitty-gritty details up in the air, enjoying the freedom we had in planning the next leg.
And so somehow we ended up in Milan, at the Madama Hostel at 2:00 AM, with one day left in our stay and no idea what to do next. Our lack of a plan seemed to be either funny or downright scary to the people we met. Sure we had talked about where we would like to go, and where we wished we could go, but balancing our budget with what we want to do can be a real pain in the ass. Two of our roommates had just arrived from Switzerland, one of the countries we really wanted to visit, but inevitably scratched because of how expensive it is. But as we drank our cheap hostel beers, listened to their stories, and watched videos of them paragliding through the mountains, we couldn’t help but start to wonder how we could make it work.
Lying in our bunks later that night, with no idea what the hell we were going to do once we got there, we booked our first BlaBlaCar from Milan to Lucerne, Switzerland. Terrified of the prices, we set off for the nearest outdoor store to buy a tent and some basic camping supplies, keeping our options open in the event that we could not afford to put a roof over our heads. Six hours later and eight pounds of gear heavier, we climbed into the backseat of a complete strangers car, and set off for Switzerland!
Sorry Ted Mosby, some good things can happen after 2:00 AM.
Our first BlaBla Car turned out to be a great experience. Out of all of the bad things that could come from jumping into the back of a strangers car, the worst thing we had to deal with was an empty stomach. The couple who picked us up, as well as a third passenger, gave us a crash course in everything from Swiss history and the political system, to ways to save money and travel by farm work.
Our first destination was the city of Lucerne, primarily because it was the cheapest destination on BlaBlaCar. But, it turned out to be a fairly great stop! Arriving at our Airbnb’s much later than we intended, we found ourselves at the final stop of a bus line that would not be returning for at least an hour. Our host had previously told us that she lived right across the street from the bus stop, so we didn’t exactly plan ahead on how we would find it once we got there. As it turns out, there are many houses that you could consider “across from the bus stop”. We saw the lights on at a small family hotel nearby so we figured we might be able to find some help there. They didn’t have a clue where our Airbnb was, but were kind enough to offer us a room if we ended up wandering the streets all night. Luckily, I remembered that the listing mentioned a dog. Thanks for barking Lika, it would have been a long night!
When we woke up the next morning our host had an incredible breakfast waiting for us on the patio. Eggs, potatoes, meats, cheeses, yogurts, breads, and jams. It is her theory that the best way to start a good day is with a good breakfast. After gorging ourselves on the food we were inclined to agree. Overall Lucerne was a very beautiful city. Right out of the train station we were greeted with views of the Reuss river and the Chapel Bridge. We were very content simply walking the streets and sitting near the river, boat and people watching. Of course…we didn’t really have many alternatives.
We knew before arriving that Switzerland is a very expensive country, and were even warned by other travelers just returning. Yeah, Yeah, we told them, you must have gone to the wrong places, surely a pack of lunch meat isn’t that expensive.
Never have I been more wrong. On the one hand, it was nice because the CHF to USD conversion is nearly identical, so there were no mental gymnastics every time you go shopping. But to see a dozen eggs priced at 6 CHF, or a pack of eight slices of ham for 7 CHF, is a bit gut wrenching. But, at the end of the day, you can’t buy what you can’t afford. So we contented ourselves with our bread, and our condiments, and made sure we ate just a little bit more than normal during our host-provided breakfast.
Traveling during summer so far has been great, and it seems like everywhere we go we happen upon some sort of free food, or music, or culture festival. At Lucerne, it was the Blue Ball Festival! Why not? We saw a band featuring a tuba player. We saw a man playing a banjo/harmonica combo on the steps of a bank. And most spectacular of all was the Nashville cowboy belting out country songs on a riverboat. Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Switzerland anymore!
Carving our way through Switzerland towards the Matterhorn, we by-chance found ourselves in the small town of Frutigen. For me, this place was a diamond in the rough. Not because the rest of Switzerland isn’t just as beautiful. It’s just that I don’t think we ever would have found this place if there hadn’t been an open Airbnb listing. It is a small and quiet town, it doesn’t tout any of the big-name tourist destinations like nearby Brig, Grindelwald, or Interlaken. And I think that was why we enjoyed it so much. Combine it’s quiet and tranquil setting, with the absolutely beautiful views of the mountains all throughout the day, and you have paradise.
Our hosts Tobi and Jo were great, and did everything they could to make sure we enjoyed our stay. Beat from our long day of traveling, and the weight of our packs on our backs, we turned in for a night of relaxation. The next morning our hosts recommended a nice short hike around the town, eventually leading out into the forest and across a large suspension bridge!
That night, our hosts graciously invited us to a small barbecue they were throwing in honor of Switzerland’s national day. As two backpackers living on a tight budget in an expensive country, we were game for whatever they would feed us. It turned out to be one of the best nights of our trip so far. Tobi, Jo, and their friends were incredibly welcoming, and were very accommodating to our lack of the Swiss-German language. The food was great, homemade and plentiful, including many of the luxuries we’d been lacking, including some local beers from Tobi’s stash. We listened to history about Switzerland and chatted about our lives and careers. It was a great evening and were happy to be there for the celebration.
On our way out of Frutigen and onto Zermatt, our hosts hooked us up with one last favor. They gave us the inside scoop and had us check the tourism office for discount train passes that would allow us to take trains all over Switzerland for a flat price, saving us at least $100 on our way to Zermatt! Arriving in Zermatt, we instantly realized the town screams luxury tourism, and we knew we were in for a world of financial hurt. In all fairness, it was still breathtakingly beautiful, but there was an undeniable focus on high quality hotels, restaurants, shops to outfit any desperate ski-bunny. Fortunately, we expected this, and armed with our tent found the only affordable accommodation within 2 km – a small mom and pop camping sight just next to the train station for $22.00 per night.
We woke up bright and early the next morning, at around 5:45am, starting our day with our first glimpse of the Matterhorn. It was a great motivation for what we had planned next, a 28 km roundtrip hike to the base of the Matterhorn, ascending and descending 1700m. As it turns out, this is not a hike for the faint of heart. While the views were beautiful the entire way, I may have decided to take the lift to Schwarzee had I known what awaited me on the second leg. Fortunately, Steph and I agreed that I would be doing this part alone. Whereas the first 10km was longer and exhausting in its own right, the change in elevation was fairly gradual. The hike from Schwarzee to the Hornilutte was only 4km, but twice as high.
While I immediately knew I was going to regret this hike, I knew I would regret it ever longer if I did not do it. It was incredibly cool to watch the groups of climbers, amateur and professional, trek alongside me to begin their ascent of the Matterhorn. Each time a group passed I felt a small twinge of jealousy, wishing that I could climb just a small portion of what for them would be an ascent of a lifetime. For now we will chalk it up as one more item on the bucket list, in the section reserved for things that will likely kill me. Plus, the views from up there were pretty cool too!
On our last night in Zermatt, we splurged on a frozen pizza from the grocery store (which we intended to defrost through sun exposure) and pre-made salad for dinner. While sitting at our camp site, in the rain, eating a still frozen pizza…we realized Switzerland may have been too expensive for us. But we are 100% pleased with our little Swiss detour, and had a fantastic time! The next day, we grabbed some more discounted tourist tickets, and headed back to Italy.