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- Visiting Europe
My Adventures Touring Europe in 1982 (22) Switzerland and Heidelberg
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Friday, July 23
As we entered Switzerland, a full-blown thunderstorm erupted. Torrents of rain poured down, and we could barely see the mountains through it in the dusk. Lakis switched out the French accordion music for American Oldies pop from the 1950s and 1960s.
“This music doesn’t fit!” snapped Gayla. “He should be playing Classical instead!” I supposed she had a point, but since I hadn’t heard him play it throughout the whole tour, I took it he didn’t have any. Either way, what was the big deal?
Suddenly, out in the storm I saw a sign that said “San Bernardino – 10 km”. “Look Gayla, you’re home!” I said, pointing at the sign. She couldn’t help laughing. San Bernardino CA is as different from Switzerland as a place can get; it’s a semi-desert town, which averages less than 17 inches of rain a year.
We arrived at Montana hotel at 9:30pm. It is a charming four story house. We unloaded the bus in the rain, the cliques formed, and Gayla and I wound up on the top floor, which consisted of one attic room. Gayla fumed as we hauled our luggage up the three flights of stairs. In the room were two bunks, which were covered with white sheets and a white down quilt three inches thick. Sleeping in one would be like reveling in a snow bank – only a lot warmer!
We went downstairs to a dinner of stew, rice, and salad. Then we went to bed. I snuggled under the quilt, listening to the storm crashing outside, wishing I could live like this always. I drifted off to sleep too soon.
Saturday, July 24
Roland Stemmler (“Uncle Roland”), who owns the company ISE, lives in Switzerland. This is the part of the tour when we get to meet him and express our feelings about our experiences. We are staying in the tiny town of Seelisburg, which is close to Lucerne, where we’ll be doing all our tourist activities (we’re supposed to go for a hike in Seelisburg, but since it’s raining too much, that will most likely be cancelled). We were to give him notes about the tour at breakfast; he would read them, then we’d have a meeting afterwards when we would all discuss everything.
I got up early, sat at the desk before the single window, and looking out on the majestic mountain scenery laced with silver and pewter clouds, wrote my notes.
- I’m AMAZED you can do so much with so little money! For only $37 a day, we’re getting lodging; two meals a day; entry fees to some great places; and bus travel all over the continent! Plus, we don’t have to hassle with visas and reservations! I couldn’t have done anywhere near as well on my own!
- Some of these hotels are downright luxuriant! I especially like this one. I also like the one in San Benedetto, and in Munich. The ones in Copenhagen and Venice were charming.
- Everywhere we’ve gone, the dinners have been great. Some have even included wine!
- Some of the special attractions you’ve included are not well known, which means I would have missed them if I had come by myself. I ESPECIALLY enjoyed the castle ruin on the Danube!
- The clique problem is really bad. I don’t know what can be done about it – maybe smaller groups?
- We’re moving too fast. I’d like to spend more time enjoying the different places – but I don’t really know what to do about that, either.
- Continental breakfast gets old after awhile.
- The plane flight was quite expensive – over $900 (I found one for $600).
P.S. Since this company is called International Student Exchange, where is the exchange? All I know of is us Americans travelling in Europe.
These are postcards I bought in Lucerne. Some contain multiple photographs, which I cropped out into single pictures.
Gayla was sitting on her bed, scribbling furiously. “You want to use the desk?" I asked her, standing up.
“No, this is fine. You’re not done already, are you?”
“Yes – at least for now.”
“Really?” she asked, surprised. “May I read yours? You can see what I’ve written so far.”
We traded papers, and I read hers.
“This tour is absolutely the worst experience I’ve ever had! Everyone here is so mean! They’re too loud and immature, and all they ever do is get drunk and party! Nobody here appreciates culture! There’s a black girl here, and they keep discriminating against her! Also the tour guide and bus driver are totally incompetent – they left me stranded on top of a rock in Greece! I HATE this tour, and can’t wait for it to end!”
“Uh – what’s this about me being discriminated against?” I asked, puzzled.
“Well they have been, haven’t they?”
“No, not at all.”
“How can you say that, when they keep excluding you?!”
“Sure they have been, but I don’t think it’s racism. I admit, I haven’t been very social with them either. I tried to change that when we arrived in Venice, but by then the cliques have already formed…”
“Well, they’re excluding us anyway! I don’t care why!”
I headed towards the door. “You coming to breakfast?” I asked her.
“Later. I want to finish this first.”
I went down to the dining room, handed my note to Johannes, and had breakfast with the group. “You think we’ll hike in the rain?” I asked Eric, who happened to be sitting nearby.
He gave me a strange look. “You can if you want to.”
“Well – it’s just that I’ve wanted to come to Switzerland all my life, and it would be a shame if I got all the way here and didn’t get to go on a hike. Some of the tours include glacier skiing. I really wanted to go on one of those, but my abilities aren’t good enough.”
“I doubt anyone will ski in the rain,” he said.
He had a point; I guess it’s a good thing I didn’t choose that tour after all.
After we finished eating and the dishes were cleared away, Uncle Roland entered the dining room. He was tall, muscular, and appeared to be in his fifties. “Good morning everyone,” he greeted us; he had a faint Swiss accent. “I hope you’re enjoying your visit to Europe, and particularly this fine weather we’re having.” A few of us laughed.
“I am Uncle Roland,” he introduced himself. “I founded this company, International Student Exchange, back in 1959. My intent is to help young people travel well on a budget, and learn more about the world we live in, with its various cultures. Somebody asked where the exchange was going on. While you Americans are travelling in Europe, I have groups of Europeans who are touring the United States. Next year, I will be adding tours of Asia.” So that was the answer to my question. Wow – I’d love to visit Asia! Maybe I can become a regular ISE tour member and see the world– wouldn’t that be great?
“I’ve read your notes,” he went on. “I’ve noticed there were a lot of complaints. Cliques have been a major issue with you. Someone mentioned smaller groups as a solution. Unfortunately, that would make the problem worse, since there’s a possibility that one person could be excluded from the rest. Also, that would make the tour a lot more expensive.” Me again. Boy, he really pored over the notes, didn’t he? Mine, anyway.
“Many more complaints were made about the food and the hotels. I suppose you’re used to travelling with your parents and staying in one Hilton after another, right?” Silence, broken with some uncomfortable giggling, followed. “You should have known by the price it wouldn’t be that way. Besides, this is an opportunity for you to really see Europe, staying in monasteries and hostels, like this one.”
Gayla entered the room and sat by me.
“Some people love to complain. I had one group that had nothing good to say about ISE; all they wrote were complaints. My meeting with them was downright hostile. Yet later on, they seemed to be having the time of their lives in Lucerne. I couldn’t understand it; then I realized, they just love to complain. It wasn’t about ISE at all. However, this is my baby; it hurts when people criticize it.”
Gayla handed her note to me, indicating that she wanted me to take it to Uncle Roland. I walked to the front of the room and handed it to him. He scanned it quickly, moaned, “Oof!” then dropped it as if it had caught fire. I cringed as I walked back to my seat. Horrors – he didn’t think I’d written it, did he?
“Anyway, I hope this is the case with you. Please have a good time in Lucerne, and appreciate the opportunity you have to explore other cultures.”
Our meeting adjourned; we got on the bus.
“Uncle Roland doesn’t care about us travelers!” whined Gayla, on the way over. We were sitting next to each other. “He didn’t even bother to read my note!” I decided not to respond.
Last night’s thunderstorm had eased into a misty rain. We arrived in Lucerne, and were given a walking tour of the city. Among other things, we walked across the gorgeous covered wooden Chapel Bridge, which dominates the city view. “This bridge is 400 years old,” our local tour guide told us. Wow – imagine the maintenance involved, especially in this climate!
We were eventually led to a fountain, where a sculpture of a dying lion had been carved into stone. “You no doubt have heard Switzerland is a neutral country when it comes to war,” said our guide. “There are many reasons for this, such as this mountainous region making our country difficult to attack. However, nearly 500 years ago, Switzerland used its neutral status to assist other countries in battle. Two countries warring against each other hired troops, and thus the Swiss soldiers were forced to fight against each other. There were heavy losses on both sides. This sculpture, which is called the Neutrality Lion, serves as a reminder of that; for this reason, Switzerland refuses to take part in wars of any kind. You may wonder how we maintain that status in this day and age, when people are no longer hindered by mountains since they can do air strikes. In our country, all 19 year old male citizens are required to join the military, so they can defend our country in case it is attacked. They do have a choice if they wish to join the Swiss Navy.” She paused, waiting for us to catch her joke. Danny and I laughed first.
We were taken to a factory where Swiss watches were made. Some people actually bought one! I didn’t even bother to look at the prices.
We also visited a shop that sold Swiss chocolate. There, I made a purchase, and saved the cover of the package.
After that, we had free time. Gayla and I had lunch together; I bought a ham pastry and strawberry pie. We sat eating under an umbrella at an outdoor café. Gayla began grumbling about Uncle Roland again, but I changed the subject.
“Wow – at last I’m here in Switzerland, after a lifetime of dreaming! It’s even better than I thought it would be!” I exclaimed, eating my ham pastry. It was absolutely wonderful, even though I don’t like ham (so why did I buy it? Shows how enamored I was!).
“This weather’s awful,” groaned Gayla.
“Even with this awful weather, it’s wonderful!” I responded.
“I just can’t wait for this tour to be over, so I can get to Amsterdam,” said Gayla. “Hopefully, I’ll meet some guys at Eckankar. I want to get married again – this time, to a European.”
“Well, you’re definitely in the right place to meet one! I wish I could stay here long enough to meet one, too!” I told her.
“You can always come back. Just don’t make the mistake of doing it with ISE.”
“What European guys do you like best?” I asked quickly, to avoid the upcoming bitchfest. “I like Germans.”
“I don’t know – they’re all different from shallow, materialistic, game-playing Americans. So any of them are an improvement.”
“Even the Italians and Greeks?” I asked, incredulous.
Gayla shrugged. “Yeah,” she answered, unconvincingly.
I managed to keep her talking about her two marriages, and her plans for the third one, until it was time to return to Seelisburg.
Since Rick Steves is Roland Stemmler's partner in the travel industry, he can provide great insight to his home country!
Once we got back to the Montana hotel, everyone holed up in their rooms. Obviously, today’s hike is cancelled. Since it wasn’t raining, I decided to go for one by myself.
Seelisburg is a tiny town, too small to get lost in, so I didn’t need a map. It sits on a hillside, with one tall white steepled church and graveyard behind it, and lots of charming bungalows and shops. I took a few pictures, and as I walked around, I made up a story about being kidnapped by a local who is enamored with exotic black women and held hostage, but he treats me well. After awhile, even when I have a chance to escape, I choose to stay.
I returned to the hotel in time for dinner, which included cheese fondue. It was a lot of fun. Afterwards, since it was dark and the weather cold and dreary, most of the group sent upstairs to bed. I got out my guitar and began playing John Denver songs. “Wow – this fits perfectly!” exclaimed Bruce, and Danny agreed. I played one song after another, and gradually, most of the group came back downstairs to listen.
The waitress set a double-sized stein of local beer in front of me. “Thanks. How much?” I asked reaching into my pocket.
“It’s free. It’s for your music,” she answered.
“Wow – thanks!” I took a generous sip. “Do you live here?”
“No, I’m just working here for the summer. I’m from Austria; I live near Vienna. My name’s Astrid.”
Astrid from Austria – interesting! I thought to myself, envious that she lived near Vienna.
“My name’s Yoleen, and I’m from California,” I told her.
“Sunny California – I’d love to visit it someday,” she said.
“Yeah, it’s quite sunny. It’s a lot like Italy – you’ve been there?”
“A few times. I prefer vacationing in Greece.”
I played a few more songs, then people began making requests. I could play nearly all of them. When I went into Lionel Richie’s “Still”, Robin sighed, “Oh, Yoleen!” It turned out to be one of her favorite songs.
Astrid gave me a second giant beer! “You should become a star,” she said.
“I’m flattered!” I responded.
I wound up playing and singing for over three hours. The others joined in whenever they knew the songs. My fingers got sore, but I was too drunk from those mega beers to care. Even more so, I was high as an alpine summit over the whole scene, being here in Switzerland and singing the songs of my beloved John Denver. The only thing that could improve it was being able to stay forever!
Finally, Johannes announced that it was midnight, and we needed to go to bed so we could leave on time in the morning. I played and sang “Song of Wyoming” as a finale. Astrid and I exchanged addresses, then we all headed upstairs. “Thanks,” Danny told me. “This was one of the best evenings of this tour for me.” I was too stunned to respond.
Gayla was already asleep when I entered the room. I felt bad that she had missed this fabulous evening, but not too bad. Though she wasn’t in the best of moods today, she needs to realize sometimes you have to pull yourself up by your bootstraps. I quietly prepared for bed.
Sunday, July 25
I HATE to leave this place! This is the most difficult departure of the trip! I wish someone would kidnap me, so I could stay!
Astrid and I hugged each other. “Where will you be going next?” she asked me.
“Heidelberg,” I told her.
“I’ve been there. It’s a university town. I believe you will like it a lot,” she told me. That was encouraging. Maybe someone will kidnap me there!
As the bus pulled away, I gazed at Montana hotel until it was out of sight. Would I ever get to visit there again? If so, when?
The sky was overcast, but it had stopped raining. We could clearly see the majesty of the Alps. It didn’t look like there was enough snow for skiing; I wondered how that tour group was doing. I should have asked Uncle Roland.
We arrived in Heidelberg at 2pm. We checked into our hotel, and once again, Gayla and I were in an attic-type room, similar to the one in Seelisburg. It seemed the ideal place for a young couple to have a torrid affair. Somebody kidnap me, please!
We toured the city on foot. It’s mainly brick and cobblestone, though it has Medieval architecture as well. First we went to Heidelberg Castle, which contains the world’s largest beer keg. It was so huge, we needed a flight of stairs to go over it, and a platform was at the top! Open up wide, Yoleen! You know what they say about German beers! So far, my favorite brand is Carlsberg; maybe I’ll change my mind after sampling from this tap, which was the size of a shower head!
Unfortunately, there was no beer tasting. We descended the staircase, and continued our tour. “Well, that was a waste of time, wasn’t it?” I overheard Eric sneer. Hey, it’s his loss if he doesn’t appreciate it!
Next, we went to a brick courtyard. I found a heel imprinted in a brick and stuck my foot in; it fit perfectly. “Uh – I wish you’d waited until I told my story before you did that,” our local tour guide said, uncomfortably. I took my foot out.
“See that window up there?” She pointed to the third floor. “Behind it is the bedroom of a baron and baroness, from Medieval times. The baroness was having an affair, and one night her husband came home unexpectedly. Her lover leaped out the window, leaving this imprint in the brick. It’s believed that anyone whose foot fits in there is an infidel.”
“Oops,” I giggled. Chris came over and stuck his foot in; it fit perfectly too. Several others tried, and they all fit. “I guess we all have the same size heel, come to think of it,” laughed our tour guide.
That night, we had dinner in the COOLEST pub! It was a centuries-old university site; the walls, ceiling, tables and pew seats were all made of dark wood, and every inch was covered with carved graffiti! I wish I could have taken pictures! An Oompah band serenated us while we dined. The food and beer were fabulous, but I was so enamored by the atmosphere, I barely remember the meal. A local man sitting near us held his giant beer stein by the handle and artfully twirled it several times under his arm and around his head, without spilling a drop. A few of us tried it; only Bruce succeeded.
When I went to bed, I discovered it was very much like the one in Switzerland, with a thick down comforter. If only I’d planned my college years better! I would LOVED to have studied overseas here!
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© 2013 Yoleen Lucas