27 November, 2006

Traveling to Interlaken - Switzerland

We took the train from Bern to Interlaken. Since we took the Standard train, we missed out on the souvenir keychains that are given on the tourist trains. Never mind... we traveled for a much lesser price.

The train made its way through the beautiful little towns Brienz, Thun, Spiez, Lauterbrunnen to reach Interlaken OST. We rode in the standard car as the panoramic cars are quite expensive. The standard cars have regular windows with smaller field of vision, in comparison to the panoramic cars. They have windows that genearally can be opened for unobstructed view. Unfortunately we weren't aware of this and so most of the pictures that we took have come with a glare :(.

With the total population of the country being only about 75,23,934 (July 2006) it is not too surprising to see very small villages. In some places the village had only about 10 houses. We couldn't see human habitation for miles at times. We would point out to each other when we saw anybody in a village :).

The tourists can hop off at any station, explore the village and then take the next train to their destination. No booking in advance is required and so you can explore the village at your own pace. M and me wanted to stop over at Spiez and try wind surfing. But we decided against it as we wouldn't have sufficient time in Interlaken. Also MK and his wife would probably not be able to go surfing with us :(. It was getting dark and we had to reach Interlaken before it became totally dark. So we decided to hire a bicycle and ride back to Spiez the next day if we had sufficient time.

We reached Interlaken OST station by 6 in the evening....

View from Interlaken hostel

More to follow...

25 November, 2006

Bern - A day in the Swiss capital

We took the train from Geneva airport to Bern -- the capital of Switzerland. We rented a locker in the railway station for 8CHF and stored our baggage. We took the tourist map and set out on foot towards the center of the city.

I was excited! I was finally in the country that I always aspired to visit. Switzerland to me was always synonymous with snow capped mountains and chill wind. But there was neither snow in the city nor was it cold. We were in the country during summer and it was quite hot.

Just when we were about to turn round the corner near the railway station, M returned to the locker room to get his cigarette lighter. After he collected the lighter he realised that he had to insert 8CHF to shut the locker :) again. I smirked at him :) and said
"Serves you right. You don't listen to me when I try to stop you from smoking and now you have to pay 8CHF to smoke one cigarette. Don't you think that is one overpriced cigarette?"
ah-ha! Finally the scores were even! He had called me a bad cook and now I had the opportunity to taunt him and how could I let it go :)?! Needless to say, M was offended and he probably might have even sworn at me silently :).

The help desk assistant at the tourist information center had marked a few monuments and other places popular with the tourists, on the city map. We followed the road that led to the Swiss Parliament house pausing briefly to verify the map and ensure that were on the right road. We had already ridden on the excellent inter city train. The local trams also looked quite good. I'm sure it would be great to ride on one of those trams.

We visited the Swiss parliament. There are guided tours at particular hours of the day,but we didn't go inside. It didn't look as beautiful as I had imagined it to be. Maybe the interior is more elegant than it looks from the outside?

We ticked off one monument the travel assistant had marked on the map. Quite close to the Swiss Parliament is the Swiss National bank. I must confess that the building didn't match up to my expectations :). I had imagined a more grandiose building.

We went around the Swiss Parliament that is situated beside the river Aar. This old part of the town has tile houses that are built alike; they are simple, but solid structures of sandstone blocks, mostly three stories high and sheltered by projecting high-gabled roofs.

Next on the list were the clock tower and the münster. M didn't like the clock tower but I was mesmerized. Wish I had binoculars with me to see the clock. The clock reminded us it was almost time for lunch. There was a McDonald outlet situated very close to the clock tower. We were slightly more than surprised to see the price list. Surprised wasn't probably the word... we were probably SHOCKED. Food is very expensive in Switzerland. I had read that information on the net, but hadn't expected that a vegetable burger and a soft drink would cost me 10.55 CHF. M ordered a chicken burger and a coke. We were also served French fries with the food we ordered. We went upstairs and occupied the few empty chairs in the room.

Until then I hadn't realised how hungry I was. But once the food was served on the table, I started feeling hungry. We were all so famished that we started gobbling the food as soon as it was served. M toppled his glass containing the coke. I offered him Mirinda but he didn't drink it. Well... if that is what he wanted... I wouldn't compel him to drink Mirinda!

Next we went to the münster. We sat outside the church for a while and listened to the local band.

Bern Münster

We checked the map and decided to walk beside the river to the bear pit and then to the rose garden. We sat in the little garden beside the river for a while looking at the serene water. The landscape around Berne was formed by glaciers in the last ice age. The city was originally built on a peninsula engulfed by the river Aar but outgrew the natural boundaries of the river in the 19th century.

We stopped at the bear pit and watched the two bears. Bears have been maintained in the pit for over 400 years. The animals didn't look happy (obviously!) and they were resting in the little shadow that was cast by the wall of the pit. We couldn't watch the sad animals and M didn't want to even take their picture. We started our ascent to the rose garden.

MK decided to rest in the cool shade of the trees with his son and the three of us (me, M and MK's wife) started walking up the little hill. I was tired after climbing half way up the hill and MK's wife was literally gasping for breath. A couple of elderly women passed by and one of them smiled at us and said "you are young girls. You should be running up the hill and not stopping to rest". Having said this, they continued climbing the hill.

I must confess I was slightly embarassed at what the women said and so got on to my feet immediately and started climbing the hill again. MK's wife was making a Herculean effort to climb :). We finally succeeded in climbing the hill but were disappointed by what we saw. There were a few rose plants that had almost wilted away because of the summer heat and the roses weren't worth mentioning either. My mom grows better roses in our garden at home :(.

We knew that the garden up the hill was disappointing, but MK didn't. When we returned, we decided to make him jealous :) by saying that he had really missed something. He looked terribly disappointed. He was still repenting for having opted to stay back, when M spoiled the fun by blurting out that the rose garden wasn't really worth the climb up the hill. Aargh! What a spoil sport!

On the way back we stopped at a flea market. The vendors advertised that the few unusual assortment of things that they were selling in their shops were from the world wars' era. I was tempted to buy a few porcelain dolls. But the price was ridiculously high! How disappointing! One shop had a few torches and kerosene lamps that wouldn't light now :)...

We returned to the train station and collected our baggage from the storage room. We walked towards the platform to take the next train to Interlaken...

20 November, 2006

Flight to Geneva - Switzerland

Our tickets read,
"Destination Geneva -- 18th June 2005, Heathrow Terminal 4 -- Departure time 6:50 AM"

I took the bus 140 at 5:10AM, from Harrow bus station stop, to Heathrow airport central. I reached the airport at 5:55AM. I walked to terminal 3 to take the Heathrow express to terminal 4. On reaching Terminal 3, I realised that the Heathrow express would only run from 6:15 AM. OOPS! That wasn't good news. But I had no option. It was drizzling outside and I didn't want to lug my baggage to terminal 4. The entrance to the platform was locked :(. So I sat outside, waiting for the terminal service train.

The gates opened at 6:15AM. The first train arrived. I got on to the train and held the flight ticket in my hand, but there was no sign of the inspector. I put my ticket back in my backpack and stood near the door so that I could get off as soon as they opened and rush to the checkin counter. It took just a few seconds over a minute for the train to reach terminal 4. I pulled my cabin baggage and ran towards the check-in counter. M was already waiting impatiently. I rushed to the checkin counter and got my boarding card. Though he didn't complain loudly it was quite clearly written on his face that he was mad at me for arriving late :). I had to explain to him that the inter-terminal service started only at 6:15 and so I had to wait for it to begin. It didn't take much time to checkin as we were the last couple of people to check in.

Though I didn't request for a window seat, the officer at the desk handed me my boarding card with a window seat number on it :). M got the one besides mine.MK, his wife and kid had already settled in their seats when we got on to the flight. MK wanted to exchange tickets with me. But I wanted M to take pictures as we took off the ground and so we had already decided to exchange our seats and I am glad we did. If you notice the pictures carefully, you will see some interesting patterns in the picture.

We were served vegetarian sandwiches for breakfast. They didn't taste very good :(. But we had no choice. I had read on the internet that it wasn't very easy to find good vegetarian food in Switzerland. So I ate all the food that was served though I didn't quite enjoy it. I complained a couple of times to M who only managed to smile and say
"it is better than the food you cook."
How rude!

The airport authority immigration check at Geneva took a couple of minutes. The immigation officer was a handsome guy. I must confess M caught me a couple of times ogling :) at the officer and said
"there will be more handsome men in the country. You can ogle at them later. Now we should probably make our way to the baggage reclaim".
The officer asked me a question in what sounded like French and I only managed to smile and shrug my shoulder and say
"Sorry. I didn't follow what you said. Could you repeat your question please?"
The man probably didn't know English coz he muttered something and added "OK. OK", scanned my passport and handed it back to me. I was expecting him to stamp "immigration cleared" or something like it on my passport, but he didn't. I mentioned it to M and he said
"they probably scan your passport in the machine and so they don't have to stamp on it."
Mmmm... that was something new!

The entire process of the immigration took us just a couple of minutes and we were off to the cabin reclaim section. We collected our baggage and walked over to the train ticket section. There’s only one terminal, replete with English-language signing. The tourist information and airport information desks (both daily 6am–midnight) are in plain view, offering free maps and advice and hotel reservations boards (with complimentary phone). To the left of tourist information is a revolving door giving access into the adjacent CFF train station.

You can buy a Swiss pass and travel anywhere in Switzerland. The Swiss Pass offers 4, 8, 15, 22 days or one month unlimited access to Swiss Travel System’s rail, bus and boat network at very attractive rates. Refer http://www.swisstravelsystem.ch/?L=2 or http://www.raileurope.com/us/rail/passes/switzerland_index.htm for details.

I was keen on going to Bern while M wasn't :(. He felt he could go trekking in the mountain passes rather than spend another day in the city. After much discussion (or should I say argument? :)....), he reluctantly agreed to go with me. So we bought the combined rail pass for two as we could save a couple of CHF. Since MK and his wife didn't have any particular choice of their own, they agreed to go with us.

We walked to the adjoining railway station that is just about 200m from the flight. The airport waiting lounge was flanked with the models of these beautiful cows...

We boarded the train to Bern and were on our way to the capital city within few minutes of arriving at the airport. Our country would benefit much if the transport system is modelled on the lines of the the Swiss nation.

Planning for the trip - Switzerland

I had seen Switzerland in many of our Bollywood movies and I dreamed of going there some day. I mentioned to M that I would be going to Switzerland for three days during the long weekend in June 2005. He was excited but reluctant to join me as he thought we had to apply for a special visa to visit Switzerland.

Indians holding work permit for United Kingdom that is valid for more than six months could visit Switzerland (2005) without any special permit. Switzerland wasn't a Schengen nation then(don't know if it is now...!!!), and so didn't demand the special visa (Schengen) that Indians require to enter Europe. But M wasn't convinced. I wrote to the Switzerland tourism department (webmaster@swisshelpdesk.org) and they confirmed that we didn't require any additional visa. (You can look up at http://www.swissinfo.org/eng/index.html for further information.)

He entrusted me wih the job of charting our journey in the country. He confessed that his knowledge about the country was limited and he would be glad to visit any place that I would consider worth visiting. Then began the meticulous job of finding the interesting places to visit in three days. The country looked really beautiful in the movies and I wasn't sure how many places we could visit in three days. I wanted to make most of our visit to the country.

I consulted Mark, our colleague who frequently visits Switzerland. He wrote to his friend in Geneva and suggested that I shouldn't miss the beautiful little town -- Interlaken, if I visit Switzerland. He also sent me a list of things that I could do while I was in the small town. I checked out a few sites on the internet and decided on visiting Bern, Geneva and Interlaken. I called up a fellow volunteer (back then, I used to volunteer for Friends Of Children) in India who had visited Switzerland, to find out what other places I could add to my itinerary. He suggested that I visit Jungfraujuch.

Another colleague, MK expressed his desire to join us (me and M). Now our group consisted of 4 adults (me, M, MK and his wife) and MK's two year old kid. So, I had to find a budget hostel that was also children friendly. After much searching on the net, I found a backpackers villa at Interlaken ( href="http://www.villa.ch/")that also accommodated families. The next job was to find the cheap flight to Geneva.

British Airways offered return tickets to Geneva for 87 Pounds. This wasn't a bad bargain. I went to BA office with M to book our flight tickets to Geneva. Unfortunatey neither of us had a credit card and the kind lady at the booking office suggested that we book our tickets on the internet as it would cost us less. We returned to our office in London and called MK at Leatherhead office. We requested him to use his credit card to book our flight tickets on the internet. We managed to get the return tickets for 78 Pounds each.

MK booked a dorm bed for me in the ladies' dorm and another room for M in the men's dorm at Backpackers Villa Sonnenhof. He booked a family room for himself.

We were to take the 7:30 AM BA flight from London -- Heathrow, to Geneva; take the train to Bern and visit the city the whole day. We would then take the train to Interlaken and checkin for the night. We would also go sightseeing in the night. The next day we would change trains at Grindelwald to Jungfraujuch and return to the hostel for the night and leave by train to Geneva the next morning. We would take the flight back to London the same evening.

"Perfect! I couldn't have planned any better if I were going to Switzerland for three days. You seem to have added all the nice places to your list." was what Mark said when I briefed him with my plan.

More to follow...

05 November, 2006

Bern - Bern's Münster - Switzerland

The first chapel on the site was recorded in 1224. On March 11th, 1421, Matthäus Ensinger a master builder from Strasbourg started the construction of St. Vincent cathedral, using the greenish local sandstone. Work continued until the mid 16th C according to his original plans. Most of the church's treasures were destroyed in 1528. But some notable pieces such as the portal sculpture, choir stalls and stained-galss windows survived. The münster was finlly completed in 1893 after a gap of 3 centuries with the addition of spire.

The central portal of the cathedral has spectacular depiction of the "Last Judgement" in the Gothic style. 170 small figures are the 15th C originals. 47 larger free standing pieces were replaced by copies in 1964 and the originals are now in the Bernisches Historisches museum. The left half of the portal depicts the "saved" and the right half the "damned". The left portal has beautiful smiling figures and the right portal has naked, screaming torment figures. This portal must have appealed to the iconoclastic reformers too as they spared it from destruction.

In the very centre is Justice flanked by angels Wise and foolish virgins and above the Archangel Michael wielding a sword and scales.

This medieval building was never a Catholic church as is often stated, for there has never yet been a bishop of Bern. This now serves as a Protestant church.

04 November, 2006

Bern - Zytglogge - Switzerland

This 600 year old astronomical clock has a big dial on the outside that measures the 24 hours of the day. The star pointer gives the month and date. The darkest panels at the back indicate the time of sunrise and sunset while another point shows the sign of the zodiac. The moon pointer shows what stage the moon is at (full moon, new moon, crescent etc). The simpler mechanism of the clock was replaced by the current clock mechanism in 1530. The mechanism is composed of interlocking iron wheels, ropes, levers and knobs. The momentum of the clock is generated by the gradually descending stone weights that hang from long ropes through three floors of the tower. Highly paid, specially comissioned experts tried to add a pendulum to the mechanism but failed. A local farmer at the beginning of 18th C solved the problem.

The tower has a 1.4 ton bell that gives the tower its name. The month and the year it was cast (October 1405) is engraved on the bell. This year was the turning point for Bern. The wooden city had burnt down to ground and thus brought about a massive reconstruction project. The new project was to construct the town in sandstone.

To the right of the clock is a carillon that moves every hour (start 4 minutes before the full hour). It sounds small bells by means of a 'jester' indicating the number of the next hour. The jester rings the two bells alternatively while a round-about of 7 bears rotate representing the days of the week.

The first bear mounted on a horse symbolises Sunday, the beginning of the week, followed by 6 other bears (monday - saturday) representing the different professions. The 4th bear turns his head when he comes out. The bear represents the 4th day of the week -- wednesday -- 'the turn of the week'. When the full hour arrives, the little man in rubber boots sitting on a golden chair starts counting the hour by moving his bearded chin while moving a golden rod - left-right-left. He is morally supported by a little golden lion that sits to his left and vigorously shakes his head for each count. At the same time, a huge golden male figure at the very top of the tower rings the big bell, one stroke for each full hour. All this is initiated by a golden rooster (flapping his wings) by crowing. He also crows in the middle of the show and finishes it off with his crowing.

The grim histroy of the tower
The tower was erected to serve the purpose of defence, but was later used as a women's prison. The so-called pfaffendirnens (prostitutes of the priests) who were condemned for having sexual relations with priests or monks were locked up here and severly punished. Many of them died in the tower.

01 November, 2006

Bern - Schweizerische - NationalBank -Switzerland

Today, Switzerland is considered a safe money haven as the Swiss financial sector is now home to 35% of the world's private and institutional funds at an estimated value of 3 trillion Swiss francs (CHF). This country is a magnet for international money as it beholds a long tradition of stability that is reflected in a sound banking system and currency. The Swiss franc is considered one of the world’s premiere currencies as it is backed by a large percentage of gold reserves relative to other advanced rich nations. With a population of approximately 7 million of which 1.1 million are foreigners, this very mountainous and scenic nation is home to many of the world’s wealthiest citizens and their bank accounts.

You are just another number...
The act of bank accounts designated with numbers only came about from time in history of Nazi Germany. Several German citizens in the 1930’s were executed for having Swiss bank accounts. Since then, no longer could just anyone walk into a bank and ask for an account holder’s name. If you wish, you can open a numbered bank account, available for individuals and corporations. Numbered accounts help to better maintain and protect the financial privacy of the client. Names are not shown anywhere on bank statements. A copy of valid identification is also required for each signer of the account. Numbered accounts are treated just like name accounts under Swiss banking rules.

Banking Laws in Switzerland
Banking law (Swiss Banking Law -- 1934)makes it a criminal offense in Switzerland for a banker to divulge information about a customer in violation of the law. The right of secrecy is a right belonging to the customer, not the bank. It is the customer’s privacy that is protected by law.

Swiss bank secrecy will cover most normal uses for a foreign bank account. Swiss law does not consider administrative offences such as tax evasion outside of Switzerland as a criminal offence, and bank secrecy will remain. However, the laws allow the banking secret to be broken if it is proven that a given bank account or person is connected to a criminal offence such as money laundering. The Swiss have some of the toughest money laundering laws within Europe and the world. Swiss law punishes with prison bankers who reveal details about their customers. Bank employees have to sign the secrecy portion of the banking act as a condition of employment.

Swiss National Bank (SNB)
The Swiss National Bank, incorporated in 1905, has executive offices in Bern and Zurich and branches in 8 other cities. It was established in 1907 as Switzerland’s independent central bank. The bank strives to maintain price stability, while taking economic development into account.

Gold forms 25% (reduced from 40% in 1996) of Switzerland’s central bank (SNB, or Swiss National Bank) reserves. This is a long-standing arrangement; Switzerland’s federal constitution requires a partial goldbacking for the Swiss franc, one of the world’s strongest and moststable currencies

Role of SNB during World War-- II
Switzerland did not have up-to-date equipment. If the country was attacked by the surrounding Fascist Nations, the army would have retreated into the Alps relatively soon, but would have kept up resistance based on some sort of Guerilla tactics.

The Swiss army would have destroyed the important bridges and tunnels and paralyzed the connection for years. The alpine railways were of central importance for transports between Germany and Italy.

Some historians say, that financial services, especially buying gold from Germany in exchange for convertible currency (Germany's national currency was no longer accepted as a means of payment in the international markets) was also an important factor. The Independent Commission of Experts showed that the Chairman of the Swiss National Bank (SNB) did not use this argument during the Second World War. "It was only after the war ... that the SNB directors claimed that their gold transactions and positive relations with Germany had prevented Germany from seriously considering the option of military operations against Switzerland. ... One might just as well claim that with its «business as usual» approach, the SNB had effectively prevented Switzerland from using the convertibility of its currency as a trump card in the economic negotiations with Germany, thus neutralising the dissuasive potential."

Dormant Accounts
Some of the victims of holocaust had accounts in Switzerland, but under these tragic circumstances surviving heirs were not easily able to know whether there was any account at all and exactly with which bank institute in Switzerland. After the war, Swiss bankers generally declared account of people that did not reply to letters or send letters to the bank with exact reference to the account number as "dormant accounts". This fact alone is a standard procedure not worth commenting. The problem is, that bankers were not very cooperative with surviving heirs that tried to find the accounts of their relatives. Only in the debate about Switzerland and World War II after 1995, they were willing to publish a list of dormant accounts and to cooperate.