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On The Road Again At Last!, Pt. 1; Switzerland

It had been 672 days, but we were finally able to leave the country again!

It’s kind of tough to maintain a travel blog when you live in one of the smallest countries on the map, measuring in at a whopping 726 km² (280 mi²), most of which is highly built up with the world’s second highest population density, and you haven’t been able to leave since late-March, 2020 due to COVID-19. This all but rules out domestic travel, the last time we were on foreign soil was on February 22, 2020 as we were leaving Los Angeles, USA, and since then the most we’ve done is venture out to Sentosa for the occasional staycation, a resort island from which we can almost see our apartment, as well as taking our dog, Kermit, on several cruises. It had been a dull almost 18 months, but that was soon about to change…

In mid-August last year, Singapore announced the opening of quarantine-free vaccinated travel lanes (VTLs) with both Germany and Brunei as of September 8, meaning we could finally leave the country again if we met the following criteria:

  • Under the travel lanes, fully vaccinated travellers departing from Germany or Brunei can enter Singapore without serving a stay-home notice from September 8
  • These travellers must undergo multiple COVID-19 tests while in Singapore
  • Children under 12, who cannot be vaccinated yet, will not be able to travel under the scheme (this rule has since been changed as children aged between 5-12 years old can now be vaccinated in Singapore, they just need to be able to show proof like everyone else)
  • Travellers from Hong Kong or Macao can apply for an Air Travel Pass to enter Singapore from Aug 26. They will have to take a COVID-19 test upon arrival but will not need to serve a stay-home notice

Well, we’re both fully vaccinated, in fact we both would have had our first booster shots before we departed, and I’m 3.5 times what was initially the minimum age requirement, so Anna started planning straight away. We immediately ruled out Brunei because, despite not needing to quarantine in Singapore when we returned, we would still be required to upon arrival in the country. Add to that the fact that Brunei is a dry state and there wouldn’t be much of a party atmosphere for our first steps in another land in what had seemed like a lifetime so a return to Germany it was.
As our large group of friends who once all lived in Singapore had pretty much all met at our local bar, Coq & Balls, catching up for a drink at least every Friday evening, our old German cohort and now Baden, Switzerland resident Felix Grube coined the phrase ‘Stammtisch’ for this group of drinking buddies, which translates into ‘regular table’ and refers to an informal meeting held around one. All of these guys were just itching to get overseas as well as other compadres who lived in countries neighbouring Germany so we all started organising together, mine and Anna’s initial plans eventually looking like this:

Yes, that’s Anna’s idea of a “rough itinerary”, it’s amazing that it didn’t include toilet breaks! Seriously, if the character of Olivia Benson from Law & Order: Special Victims Unit had her own travel show, her level of dedication and organisational skills would still pale in comparison to Anna’s. Anyway, we got to synchronising our plans with the others and, although we dodged a few bullets along the way, such as Singapore’s Ministry of Health blocking all leave for healthcare workers from October 2, merely days after Anna’s leave was approved, and Germany’s Health Minister considering the possibility of another lockdown on November 19, it looked like an awesome getaway was taking shape and it would continue to keep getting better.
The constant COVID news out of Germany was beginning to look more and more grim by the day, however, Singapore announced VTLs for eight more countries on October 19 and then more for Switzerland and Australia a week later. Traveling at that time to Australia wasn’t particularly ideal for personal reasons, but some other great options were shaping up; we had already lived in Germany in 2015, both of us had been to all eight of the countries announced on October 19, but we had never been to Venice, Italy, a place we have both always wanted to visit. Add to this that neither of us had visited Switzerland either, but we had a group of our good Stammtisch mates now living in Baden, just a short train ride out of Zürich, two of whom had only moved there weeks prior to the VTL announcement. This meant that the new plan of attack would be to fly to Zürich on Christmas Day and stay in Switzerland until December 27, then catch a train to Lake Como, Italy, stay a few nights, move on to Venice for New Year’s Eve, and back to Zürich on January 7 before returning to Singapore early on the ninth.
The Swiss Federal Council announced on December 3 that, as of the sixth, tightened measures would come into place in Switzerland due to an uptick in COVID cases, but what was going to be implemented wouldn’t really affect us too much. What we were concerned about, however, was the massive surge in cases in Italy, but in an even weirder turn of events, Italy banned all tourists from Singapore from December 16 until January 31, 2022, deeming Singapore a country of high COVID infection risk. Although the Singaporean ambassador to Italy claimed it was most likely a “clerical error”, the ban is still in place to this day. Time to pivot again.

Although almost half of our Stammtisch squad have now relocated around the globe in recent years, we always chat in a WhatsApp group and love to catch up when possible. At first almost half of them would initially be involved in this European getaway, with one couple staying in France for a few weeks including spending a week in a chalet at an alpine ski resort in Chamonix, located in the Southeast of the country. The majority of the other Stammtisch members that were planning on being in Europe at the time were going to rent chalets at the same resort and stay there for periods of time with them too, an idea that Anna and I considered at great length, however, we concluded that, due to the fact that I can’t ski, while all of our friends were out having a great time on the slopes, I’d be stuck taking skiing lessons with a bunch of kids provided I could rent gear large enough and I’d just be cold and miserable so we decided to skip Chamonix. On the other hand, we also opted to keep the idea of France as well as Switzerland and the final plan as to which we would almost entirely stick would be as Anna put it:

Looks like we probably should’ve changed that group name

So now it was looking like three nights in Switzerland, nine nights in France, followed by another three nights in Switzerland. Including ourselves, at the beginning there were going to be 14 of our Stammtisch crew in Europe, plus another mutual friend from the pub, however, as the months went on and the planning changed we would only have the potential opportunity to meet up with six of them, as one couple had decided to opt for Vancouver, Canada instead and we wouldn’t be heading to Charmonix to see the ones who would be spending time there, especially when we will probably see them all at the pub when we returned to Singapore anyway. We were going to meet up with our friends, Judith and Felix in Baden, as well as our mates and now their neighbours Tom and Leonie, whom we last saw in Seoul, South Korea in 2019, when we first arrive for Christmas lunch, and then later in the adventure with our other buddies, Peter and Ray, who had joined us on that Seoul trip, when we returned for our second stint in Switzerland before we left. Tom and Leonie even offered us a place to stay, but we didn’t want to intrude and it’s a good thing we didn’t, because Tom dropped this bombshell on us three days before we were about to leave:

Yet another peanut in the turd while planning our trip and add to this that the Singapore government stopped all VTL ticket purchases the next day until January 20, it was amazing we were able to even get this close, but we weren’t going to let anything stop us from getting on that plane. In the past we just used to chuck everything in a suitcase a few hours before our flight, but on this occasion Anna had us getting ready to pack a week in advance, just in case any of her winter clothes or boots needed cleaning or repairing, and we essentially self-quarantined for three days to be extra careful, except for when we got our compulsory COVID PCR tests two days before our flight, the results of which came back negative, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing about this trip, and after about three months of planning we were on our way to Changi Airport, Singapore, bound for Zürich, Switzerland.

Friday, December 24, 2021
Our flight would depart early the following morning so we did an idiot-check to make sure we hadn’t overlooked anything and that everything we needed for the trip was packed and ready. We checked our dogs (yes, we have two now) into their hotel and after a pre-Christmas dinner at Anna’s bother and sister-in-law’s new place, at which my father-in-law gave me the weird, albeit thoughtful, Christmas gift of a blood-pressure monitor, we checked everything again and were soon on our way to the airport. I don’t normally get nervous or anxious before flights, but on this particular occasion I was because of how much we wanted to get away and I knew that feeling wouldn’t subside until we were in the air.
Once we arrived at Changi Airport, one thing immediately struck me; what in times past was usually an extremely busy and bustling place was at least on this occasion a ghost town. I’m not kidding, besides employees, there was almost nobody around at first. Still, after checking in and completing the several new protocols, we were aboard our flight to Zürich, masks on the entire time:

Saturday, December 25, 2021
Due to timezones, our 14-hour flight to Zürich arrived early in the morning and we went through immigration quite quickly, all the while the bizarrely cheerful Swiss staff kept cracking jokes and laughing instead of trying to intimidate us like they do when we arrive at most other countries, despite being forced to work on a cold Christmas morning. Once we had collected our bags, Felix was waiting there in the lobby to greet us and drive us to our hotel in Baden:

Baden (German for “Baths”), sometimes unofficially, to distinguish it from other Badens, called Baden bei Zürich (“Baden near Zürich”) or Baden im Aargau (“Baden in Aargau”), is a town and a municipality in Switzerland. It is the main town or seat of the district of Baden in the canton of Aargau. Located 25 km (16 mi) northwest of Zürich in the Limmat Valley (Limmattal) mainly on the western side of the Limmat, its mineral hot springs have been famed since at least the Roman era. Its official language is (the Swiss variety of Standard) German, but the main spoken language is the local Alemannic Swiss German dialect. Its population in 2010 was over 18,000.

Upon checking into our hotel, Atrium Hotel Blum, and taking the tiny elevator up to our room, one frustrating memory came flooding back about a very minor detail; although our room was really nice, one thing I can’t stand about a lot of European hotels is that they will put two single doonas/duvets/comforters on a double bed. I’m a generally restless sleeper so mine tends to end up on the floor, whereas I get to roll over and witness Anna all wrapped up and snuggly under hers, a pattern that occurs multiple times throughout the night, me getting more irritated each time and therefore having trouble getting back to sleep.
After a much-deserved coffee in the hotel lobby, we now had to navigate our way up to Felix and Judith’s apartment, something that is a tad difficult to do in this part of Switzerland because of the layout, especially in the area where they live, and the fact that we would be relying on the ever-unreliable Google Maps, but after walking through this very small, old town, taking an outdoor elevator down a slight cliff face, crossing a river, and wandering up some winding roads, we made it without a hitch in time for Christmas lunch. Tom and Leonie were originally supposed to be hosting lunch, but now Tom had tested positive for Covid as well so he couldn’t even attend and Felix wouldn’t be able to stay around too long, because he had to drive out to meet his daughter at 2:00pm, but he still had time to fry us up some maultaschen, a type of German dumpling which translates into ‘mouth pockets’, and Judith knocked up a salad, not a bad first meal in Baden! Take a look at our hotel and lunch:

We had brought over plenty of gifts from Singapore so Judith was pretty excited when she saw the bakkwa, a type of Chinese pork jerky that she had requested, as well as the bottle of sake and the packet of spicy mala chips, but before long Felix had to hit the road. After a tour of their apartment, we had to decide what to do with the rest of the day and there was really only one option; the pub.

Tom would at least be with us at the pub in spirit

Felix, Judith, Tom, and Leonie have their own new Swiss Stammtisch at a place called Mr. Pickwick Pub so that’s where we were headed. The sun sets here quite early at this time of the year so it was already getting dark when we left the house just after 4:30pm and it would obviously just be the three of us, but we were polite enough to give Tom a call as we passed his and Leonie’s apartment so he could see us, give us a wave out the window (right), and we could also rub in the fact that we were going to the pub while they were stuck isolating at home a little. We made our way through the constant drizzle, soon crossed the river again, went up that weird cliff elevator, took a stroll through town, and before long were at the Pickwick.
Once we had stepped inside we noticed both the similarities and glaring differences between Switzerland and Singapore when it comes to hitting the town during the pandemic era. In both countries a mask is required while walking around inside or ordering at the bar, but aside from that, Switzerland is far more relaxed when it comes to going out. For example, entertainment is banned in pubs in Singapore; they were only allowed to play music again, albeit softly, a month or so ago, nothing but advertising can be shown on TV screens, and no games are allowed, not even card games between friends, as well as toasts or even saying “cheers” loudly! You can also only sit in a maximum group of five people and Social Distancing Ambassadors will come around with a tape-measure and check that groups are at least a metre apart, plus all licensed establishments must stop serving alcohol by the 10:30pm curfew. On the other hand, we could kick back at the Pickwick with as many people as we wanted, watch the darts on TV, and stay out later than what an over-privileged 12-year old is allowed to on a school night so that’s what we planned to do on our first night in Baden while catching up with friends we hadn’t seen in several years, as well as an Irish guy called Dermott, one of their new Swiss Stammtisch pals. A little more from that first night:

Sunday, December 26, 2021
Because of jet-lag we woke up exceptionally early by our usual holiday standards and although it wasn’t a huge night, neither Anna nor myself could recall getting home. I scrolled through the photos on my phone and it turned out I had taken a few on our journey through the lager portal back to our hotel, and apparently we left before 10:00pm, an early night even by current Singapore standards. Had someone put something in our drinks? Nah, it was more than likely a combination of the sun setting so early, us being up since about 6:00am, plus the seven-hour time difference between Singapore and Switzerland. We felt completely fine so we went downstairs to grab a coffee while we made plans for the day and came to the conclusion that we should check out Mt. Pilatus:

Pilatus, also often referred to as Mount Pilatus, is a mountain massif overlooking Lucerne in Central Switzerland. It is composed of several peaks, of which the highest (2,128.5 m (6,983 ft)) is named Tomlishorn.

The top can be reached with the Pilatus Railway, the world’s steepest cogwheel railway, from Alpnachstad, operating from May to November (depending on snow conditions) and the whole year with the aerial panorama gondolas and aerial cableways from Kriens. Tomlishorn is located about 1.3 km (0.81 mi) to the southeast of the top cable car and cog railway station. Two other peaks, closer to the stations are called Esel (Donkey, 2,118 m [6,949 ft]), which lies just east over the railway station, the one on the west side is called Oberhaupt (Head-Leader, 2,105 m [6,906 ft]).

During the summer, the “Golden Round Trip” — a popular route for tourists — involves taking a boat from Lucerne across Lake Lucerne to Alpnachstad, going up on the cogwheel railway, coming down on the aerial cableways and panorama gondolas, and taking a bus back to Lucerne.

The cable car at Kriens can be reached by the Number 1 bus that leaves from Lucerne central train station. It is then a short 10 minute walk to the cable car, following the Pilatus signs.

Thanks, Judith

That sounded like a cool idea. We went to pay for our coffees when Anna discovered that although nobody had slipped us anything in our drinks the previous night, a certain someone who happened to be hanging out with us had indeed slipped something into her handbag, namely a gift from the sex toy vending machine in the mens toilet at the Pickwick (left). Don’t worry, Judith, we’ll repay the favour sometime in the future when we meet again, don’t you worry about that.

We walked down to the station in order to catch our train to Lucerne, but once aboard I was unable to keep my eyes open. That damn jet-lag was kicking in again, a feeling I wasn’t particularly familiar with anymore, but at least the immediate need to catch a nap on a train in a foreign country well before midday hammered home the fact that we were definitely traveling again, making it a pleasant sleep for what only amounted to about 15 minutes, but it was definitely necessary. Once I had awoken again the scenery was breathtaking and Anna and myself also got a bit of a laugh out of a passenger across the aisle from us who still had the size sticker running down the leg of his jeans.
Once we had arrived at Lucerne we walked for about half an hour to the suburb of Kriens to catch the gondola up Pilatus, however, when we arrived at the station it was closed. What now? There was a guy down the road that was fixing his car so we asked him about the cable car and it turned out we were just at the wrong station and that the correct one was nearby, he even told us he would’ve driven us to the correct one if his car were running. People in Switzerland are so nice, although he also could’ve just been a serial killer who wanted to take advantage of the foggy, frozen conditions to dispose of our corpses, who knows?
A short walk later and we were now at the correct station to take our gondola to an area partway up the mountain called Fräkmüntegg, on the north slope of Pilatus. There we grabbed more coffee as we took in the incredible view over Lake Lucerne, as well as seeing possibly the most stereotypically Swiss man we could have ever imagined:

Fräkmüntegg was nice, but we hadn’t come out here to go halfway up a mountain, we wanted to get as close as we could to the summit so we jumped in another gondola to Hotel Pilatus Kulm, just below Oberhaupt. When we first arrived up there the visibility was extremely low and Anna was terrified of all of the large black birds hanging around, whereas I was more concerned about being pithed by one of the rather large icicles hanging precariously overhead. However, when the clouds gradually cleared, the view from Hotel Pilatus Kulm made what we saw from Fräkmüntegg pale in comparison, it was simply magnificent, check it out for yourself:

We caught the train back to Baden and unwound in the hotel for a bit. The jet-lag induced early morning in combination with the altitudes at which we had spent a large portion of the day made getting off our feet feel like a godsend.

Judith had planned for us to have dinner at their place that night with a couple of her friends, however, Felix would still be out of town with his daughter. On the menu that evening: Raclette. Raclette is a traditional Swedish dish where cheese is melted and then usually poured over potatoes, ham, and pickles, as well as using some bread to clean things up. It didn’t take long to realise that cheese, potatoes, and bread would make up a large portion of what we would be eating in Switzerland, but the raclette with Judith was fantastic. She has a small machine for making it so we just took a thick slice from one of the five varieties of cheese she had available, heat it in a little dish under the machine, and then just pour it all over whatever you had on your plate, repeating the process until we ran out of cheese, which did take a while.
Judith would be entertaining her other guests for the rest of the night, plus she had to work the next day so Anna and myself were left to our own devices. We didn’t really know any other places in town and it looked pretty dead when we were walking to Judith’s on a Sunday evening, but she assured us that the Pickwick would definitely be open so that’s what we would be doing, hopefully able to make the most of our newfound freedom. Once there we ran into Dermott again and he eventually took us to another bar where he introduced us to a bunch of the other new Stammtisch gang, as well as some of his other drinking buddies. These included a British guy who we both thought looked and sounded exactly like a young Hugh Grant and we soon mocked him (in a friendly way, of course) about Divine Brown when he started chatting to us, as well as another guy that, upon hearing that we would be spending the following night in Basel, gave us a list of places to go, all of which you will see would turn out to be awesome. It was a great night and we even managed to stay out a bit longer:

Monday, December 27, 2021
It was our last day in Baden before moving on to Basel so we figured we should probably check out this town during daylight hours on a weekday. We got a coffee at our hotel as per usual and one cool thing about Switzerland is that dogs are allowed absolutely everywhere, but they’re also really well-trained. We were sitting next to a giant Labrador tied up loosely to a nearby radiator and besides the fact that it was sweeping the floor with its enormous tail, it was completely calm. There’s no way that would be the case with ours!
Once we were out and about we soon realised that, despite being incredibly beautiful like many old European towns, Baden is pretty sleepy and there wasn’t really a whole lot there. You pretty much got the gist with those photos I took while walking to the pub on our first night here, the third of which is looking down the main street of shops and there are a few other commercial pockets around and that’s about it. I grew up in a small, rural town in Australia that is actually a bit bigger than Baden so I kind of knew what to expect.
We spent about half an hour looking around before we went back to the hotel to check out, passing the giant Labrador now laying on the floor on our way to the lobby, grabbed our suitcases, and once again made our way to the train station. It’s common knowledge that train stations, as well as the neighbourhoods in their immediate vicinity, tend to be a bit sketchy, however, it was still pretty amusing to see a bunch of drunk vagrants with their extra-strength lager tubes throwing up while having a rave around a more than likely stolen bluetooth speaker playing electronic music at full volume at 2:30pm on a Monday afternoon. We encountered a couple of drunk guys around a quieter speaker the previous morning, but on this occasion there was about seven or eight of them dancing while absolutely hammered and that music was blaring!
Anyway, we got to our platform where a guy was coughing up and spitting out enormous phlegm gems and soon we were en route to Basel:

Basel is a city in northwestern Switzerland on the river Rhine. Basel is Switzerland’s third-most-populous city (after Zürich and Geneva) with about 175,000 inhabitants. The official language of Basel is (the Swiss variety of Standard) German, but the main spoken language is the local Basel German dialect.

Basel is famous for its many museums, ranging from the Kunstmuseum, the first collection of art accessible to the public in the world (1661) and the largest museum of art in Switzerland, to the Fondation Beyeler (located in Riehen) and the Museum of Contemporary Art (Basel), the first public museum of contemporary art in Europe. Forty museums are spread throughout the city-canton, making Basel one of the largest cultural centres in relation to its size and population in Europe.

The University of Basel, Switzerland’s oldest university (founded in 1460), and the city’s centuries-long commitment to humanism, have made Basel a safe haven at times of political unrest in other parts of Europe for such notable people as Erasmus of Rotterdam, the Holbein family, Friedrich Nietzsche, Carl Jung, and in the 20th century also Hermann Hesse and Karl Jaspers.

In 2019 Basel was ranked among the ten most liveable cities in the world by Mercer together with Zürich and Geneva

When we arrived it was still drizzling, as had been the case pretty much the entire time since we had landed and there was only one thing on Anna’s mind — How could we possibly be on our third day in Switzerland and not have had fondue yet? It would be absolutely perfect in this weather! Sure, it was barely 4:00pm, but we could just invent a hybrid meal, kind of like brunch, but linner so we walked through the 500-year old Basel Rathaus (town hall) and went to the first place with fondue we could find, Zum Braunen Mutz, and pulled up a seat for a pot of boiling cheese and started dipping in our potatoes, bread, and pickles while an old, drunk guy sang at the top of his voice while the others at his table chatted amongst themselves. Our first look at Basel:

Once we were done giving our tongues and the roofs of our mouths third degree burns with molten cheese it was time to consult the list of places to go that was written in a pub by a random guy whose name we would never learn. The first port of call was a really eccentric bar called Schluggstube. To get there we had to walk down an alley with a great mural of different musicians, but once inside Schluggstube there were bizarre antiques and curiosities dripping from the ceiling and covering every possible surface. Anna knew it was my kind of place, but it was also quite dark inside so we could only stick around for a drink or two, otherwise Anna would start getting sleepy, despite the fact that it would still be broad daylight at this time of day back in Singapore. We walked around for a bit more before going to another place on the list, a bar called Grenzwert. Anna loved this place because of the cool wallpaper in each room, but we would soon find even better reasons to like it there. Because we had had dinner at the same time as your average octogenarian, we were now beginning to get a bit peckish again, but fortunately for us there was a sheltered outdoor area where you could grill sausages over open coals, which is exactly what we did, some locals sitting nearby telling us the best way to eat them in the process. I went to the bathroom once we were done eating and as luck would have it, there was a poster advertising an amateur comedy night in English upstairs every Monday so we went up there and caught most of the show, including a shy Lithuanian girl who was doing only her second ever set and in a second language and she was absolutely hilarious. There was an interval with three more acts after it, but Anna was quickly fading so we went back to our hotel for the night. A look back at Schluggstube and Grenzwert:

Despite the gloomy, miserable weather that we had been constantly experiencing, we were having a fantastic time exploring some beautiful places outside of Zürich, but now it was onto the next part of this adventure. Would we have trouble crossing over the border? How much more cheese and potatoes would we consume? And would either of us inadvertently wheel their suitcase through dog shit, as often happens to be the case whenever we go to France? Find out in the next instalment of On The Road Again At Last!.

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