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Trip Report A Tiny Tasting - Gruezi and Friend Train from Zurich to Milan in 5 days...

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First, many thanks to all who gave me suggestions on this mini-trip and so many other mini-trips this past year. My friend and I had a great time and I sat right down to write this before I forget the details.

A friend I've known forever flew in for a quick visit. She wanted to see my life in Switzerland, but she's also a lover of European cities, so I struggled for days deciding on an itinerary that would give her a feel for this beautiful country and also a bit of excitement. I debated primarily between the visual "wow" factor of the Berner Oberland and the quaint charm of the Engadine. (Charm won out and since the weather was pretty horrible, was I think the better choice.)

Here's the itinerary:

Day One: Zurich
Day Two: Zurich and train to Guarda in the Engadine
Day Three: Guarda Hiking and Engadine Cuisine
Day Four: Bernina Express to Turano, Turano to Milan for dinner
Day Five: Milan highlights, evening train back to Zurich

Zurich

First, if you believe in Karma....my friend gave up her plane seat from NY with an empty seat next to it, so that a couple could sit together, after she saw 2 other people refuse to do so. She promised me on arrival, "we're going to have a great trip since I did my good deed...." Rain was forecast every day of her visit here...We had no rain and even got lucky and got some sunshine....

Anyway, my friend arrived early Tuesday morning and after a big coffee headed out into a typically gray Zurich day with my daughter for a little city tour. They walked through the old town, visited the Chagall panels at the Fraumunster (a big hit for both of them) and spent an hour at the Kunstmuseum in the Impressionism wing. They did a bit of shopping - sticker shock for my friend. Then they had a fancy lunch at the Rive Gauche Bar in the Bar Au Lac Hotel. My daughter is still raving about the grilled salmon she had. (If you ever get there, try my favorite which is the Shrimp Gump and do have a Bellini - best anywhere including Italy.)

Then they came home so my friend could have a short nap. That evening we all headed to our favorite fondue restaurant - Cave Valaisanne (044 910 0315). The restaurant is in Kuesnacht, a little village a few minutes outside of Zurich on what is referred to here as "the Gold Coast" because it gets more sun (don't believe it!) and is considered hoity-toity (Not by NY standards...). Anyway, we love this little charming restaurant with an open oven for raclette, and try to go at least every few weeks for a great bottle of white wine and some wonderful fondue in a cozy spot. My friend loved our choice. That night back at home, to start my friend's birthday celebration, we also managed to squeeze in a small slice of a wonderful chocolate cake from the famous Spruengli chocolatier.

The next morning, it was another typically Zurich gray again, so I let my friend sleep in a bit. Then we packed up to head for the Engadine. Before our afternoon train, we went back into old town for a little stroll and for a special birthday lunch for my friend at a lovely and cheery french bistro - Lumiere (www.restaurant-lumiere.ch). If you love French-style decor, the golden walls and gorgeous checked cushions here will really make you smile. Later my friend said this was her favorite meal of the whole week. (She had the Zurich style veal and a spinach soup as a starter. I had my usual favorite - the shrimp aioli.)

Guarda
Later, after some souvenir shopping including lots of deliberation over which was the coolest Swiss Army knife for her daughter, and then a stroll though an Appenzeller market in the train station where we bought some snacks for the train ride, my friend and I boarded the train toward Guarda in the Engadine. It's about a 2 hour 20 minute trip including one change in Landquart. The ride takes you along Lake Zurich and later past Klosters and Davos and is quite pretty - even on a cloudy day. For the last part we cracked open a bottle of white wine and had some cheese spread on enormous pretzels and enjoyed the ride and great conversation. What a treat it was for me, who rarely sees my good friends from the US, to have such a gabfest.

We arrived at the Hotel Meisser in charming Guarda in time for an evening stroll to see the scrafitti-covered houses, and just admire this old and picturesque town perched on the side of a mountain. Then we had a lovely dinner in the hotel dining room and early to bed to rest for our morning hike. (I love this little hotel and especially the price - 114 chf for a single including a wonderful Swiss breakfast. Clean and cozy, and there is a fire burning in the lounge to welcome you. www.hotel-meisser.ch)

The next morning we headed off on a 3 hour walk first through Ardez (about 1 hour) and on to Ftan. It was snowy, so there weren't views of the mountains, but we enjoyed the charming villages and the chance to do some more catching up with each other and breathe in the mountain air. If you ever get to Ardez, do stop in the church in the middle of the town. It appears it was built in the 1600's and it is really special.

We stopped in Ftan at the beautiful Hotel Paradies Engadin where we ate a wonderful lunch in a beautiful historic alpine room that had been moved in full from an early 1900's home. We are still laughing about the fact that the three course menu we chose included something translated as "Mouse Fed Chicken." We were hungry and happy, and the menu sounded wonderful, and it wasn't until the chicken arrived in front of us that we began to wonder why a mouse-fed chicken would be superior to a grain-fed one.... Later in the meal I couldn't resist the urge to say "squeek, squeek" a few times, and by the next day the nurse in me was beginning to wonder about mad chicken disease, and still later we laughed til we cried trying to imagine a chicken actually eating a mouse... Well, the meal was fabulous and we had some great laughs and will never forget the mouse-fed chicken... (www.paradieshotel.ch) If I can afford it, I'm going to take my husband to this beautiful, romantic hotel for his birthday, but perhaps we'll skip the chicken.

We headed back by bus and train to Guarda, had hot showers and spent a couple hours in front of the fire reading, drinking tea (me) and beer (my friend) until it was time for our next meal.... Are you beginning to see why I used the word "tasting" in the title? Yes, we are food lovers and we ate gloriously well all week...that night we had some rather filling regional specialties whose names I'm sorry I don't remember. Guarda is in the Romansch region of Switzerland so it's almost a Latin dialect that's spoken here, and of course has it's own cuisine.

The next morning the sun arrived rather unexpectedly. Oh how I love when the weather report is wrong!! Finally, my friend could see the beautiful mountains all around us. And, the sun was just in time for our ride on the Bernina Express. After a long relaxing breakfast in the Hotel Meisser breakfast room, which looks right onto the mountains, we took the Post Bus back to the Guarda train station, traveled around 45 minutes to Pontresina where we boarded the beautiful and luxurious Bernina Express with it's famous panoramic windows. I'd been wanting to take this train ride for 2 years, and I felt as excited as a kid heading to Disney. The ride has recently obtained UNESCO protection.

It was a gorgeous train ride through stunning mountains and drifts of snow, and I would have been happy to spend another hour just surrounded by such beauty. We saw some para-skiers and a few dogsleds and a number of idyllic alpine villages along the way. It was just what I would imagine the north pole looks like in all of our dreams.... www.rhb.ch

Turano

Turano you say? What is there in Turano? Frankly, not much as far as we could see. I'm convinced the bus that routes you around a rock slide on the Bernina train tracks gets to Turano just 2 minutes after the train to Milan leaves so that you are forced to spend 2 hours here... (FYI, you can check your bags for a couple of Euro with the ticket window people on the Swiss side...)

The happy thing is that we have wonderful memories of Turano because we happened upon the Sale and Pepe Ristorante just across from the train station where we had the most perfect Pizza Margherita and Insalata Verde that I have ever eaten. So, when marooned for two hours in sleepy and not too charming Turano, do not despair! Head to the friendly S & P and have a wonderful lunch. We did not have room for the Tira Misu but it looked rather good....Go to Turano hungry;)

Milan

We left the Swiss train system, and as we both joked that many of our friends think we are Socialists and agreed that maybe we are a teeny little bit Socialistic, the Italian train pulled into the station. My normally very un-fussy friend climbed onto the filthy train and I could see her joy disappear. Fortunately my husband had bought us first class tickets and when we got to the first class car it was a tad cleaner although still a bit grungy. We laughed at ourselves and decided we were snobs, and definitely not socialists afterall, as we settled in for a couple hour ride past the stunning Italian lakes region and onward to Milan.

We arrived in Milan at about 6 and took a cab to the Hotel Spadari (www.spadarihotel.com) where we were warmly greeted and shown to a recently renovated and cheerful room. I was a bit relieved as I had booked this hotel solely on Fodor's recommendations and wasn't sure what we were in for - silly me, I should know you guys never let me down. Well, we were in for a treat... The location was absolutely perfect for a quick Milan trip as we were one block from the Duomo. The front desk had already taken care of tickets for us for The Last Supper and helped us with directions to our dinner restaurant. Our room with 2 twin beds and breakfast (very nice including an egg dish) was 308 Euro. Well, okay, we are capitalists when in Milan, but actually, all things considered, this felt like a good value.

Milan!!! I am not the big Italy lover that many on Fodor's are, but I do love this Italian city. Perhaps it makes me feel like I'm back in my beloved NYC or maybe Paris - I'm not sure, but I just love the energy and piazzas and architecture and art and the shops and restaurants and the never-ending people watching. This was my second visit to Milan and I still am in awe of the shopping arcade with its mosaic floor and glass ceiling. The Duomo, now completely restored, is so shiny and pink and how can you not be impressed? I've heard the city is dirty and smoggy, but honestly I just didn't see any of this. It was actually extremely clean and the sky was blue and clear.

We took a pre-dinner walk around the Duomo area and oriented ourselves and then after putting on a bit of fashion ourselves headed to La Briciola in Via Marsala. My friend had asked a Milanese friend for a recommendation for great food and people watching, and this is where we were sent. The decor was campy and fun, food was delicious...There were the usual model suspects with their old balding male escorts for fun people-watching. We did have a blast, and way too much Pinot Grigio (and a few Campari sodas for me....) And definitely they had the best tiramisu I've ever eaten - and believe me when I say I've not led a tiramisu-deprived life. The only negative thing was the hostess and our waiter were distinctly brusque and were rushing us the entire night. So, I can't heartily recommend this restaurant... sigh... I guess I might put up with the slightly shabby treatment for more tiramisu...

Afterward we walked around the area a bit which was quite lively due to the sudden good weather. Lots of outside dining and strolling couples and groups of good-looking, well-dressed, twenty-somethings. A prettier city still by night.

My friend suggested we have a contest to see who could get picked up by a sexy Italian man first, and I seriously was ready to compete with her, but she reported back to my husband that I missed more than half the great-looking men who walked by us that night and that he had nothing to worry about. I'm not yet sure what I'll tell her husband, as I want her to be allowed back - hee, hee. Well, perhaps I was less motivated as I'm already married to a sexy Italian man....

Back at our hotel, we stopped and had a last drink in the lobby - probably we shouldn't have - but, you're only young once - and for us that was a while ago - so why the heck not. Can you believe we still had not run out of things to talk about?

Next morning we headed right for the advil and then the great coffee in the breakfast room. After a surprisingly good and hearty breakfast, we checked our luggage with the desk, paid our bill, and headed in search of an outdoor market my friend had read about in Fodor's. After about a 45 minute walk, we stopped a nice gentlemen for directions and he nicely warned us off the market saying it was mostly, "fruit and old shoes"....and to "please hold closely your wallet".... Well, we decided to pass on the market and spent the morning window shopping, and sometimes buying things, as we waited for my two daughters to arrive on the Cisalpino from Zurich to spend the day with us.

After the girls arrived, we went inside the Duomo - typical interior like so many great European cathedrals IMVHO.... but, I am definitely jaded at this point. I do love the exterior...No one was keen to climb up to the top this time, but I have done this before and surprisingly I will say I was glad I had. You get to see the architecture in even closer detail not to mention the views of Milan. So, it's not a bad climb, and worth it.

Then it was time for serious shopping with the teens. Did I mention I absolutely hate to shop? Well, this is a very good friend who came a long way, and listened patiently to every story of mine about my life in Switzerland, so I sucked it up and put in the obligatory shopping day for her and my shopping-deprived teens. They had a blast, and I loved that in the Zara building there are two absolutely gorgeous floor to ceiling mosaics that I could study while they tried on stacks of outfits... Milan really does have something for everybody. They happily all had made purchases before long and I vowed to go back to my mosaic classes.

After shopping, we ate lunch outside in a random cafe that actually was rather good and had views to the Duomo. Great people watching and lots of laughs for we four women. Then we sat on the ledge of a statue in front of the Duomo and did some power sunning. (We have survived an extremely gray Zurich winter and this was pure heaven!) Suddenly, we heard the rat-tat-tatting of drums and would you believe a drum and bagpipe corp in full kilt regalia came marching into the piazza? I kid you not! Well, we are mostly all of Irish descent, and truly enjoyed the rendition of Amazing Grace and other bagpipe classics that followed. Then the corps marched off and we four headed to our 3:30 appointment to see The Last Supper. My girls knew quite a bit about this painting and Da Vinci from school, so I think we all were a bit excited.

The visit to The Last Supper was very civilized - you wait for a moment or two to get your reserved tickets (they say they cost 6.50 Euro, but somehow with all the charges 4 tickets set me back 45 Euro.... Go figure...) Then you proceed through a series of doors that close behind you and your group of about 25 people. Inside the vestibule where The Last Supper is, a guide explains in English the finer points of this beautiful and rather sad work. The whole visit lasts about 15 minutes, it's priceless, and you do feel a bit hushed and subdued afterward. I feel really lucky to have had the chance to see it, as did the rest of my foursome - in my mind today I can still see the sad face of Christ, Peter's hand on the knife, the pointy beard of Judas and those precious muted pastel colors.... (Sidenote: I've also visited the Museo Poldi-Pezzoli which is quite special, and now I vow to return for the other wonderful art museums this city offers. Milan is so under-rated I think.)

So, then? Well, it must be gelato time. We headed back toward the Hotel Spadari where I stopped in a wonderful gourmet shop (just 2 doors left of the hotel) and stocked up on wine, bread, cheese and chocolate for the train ride home. Then we got some takeaway gelato, did a last stroll of the Duomo area, and had a relaxing cup of tea back at the Hotel Spadari before we got a taxi back to Milan Central Station.

At 7:10 the Cisalpino (sadly a rather dirty old train....) headed back toward Zurich with four tired women, our shopping bags, a great train picnic, a little color on our cheeks, and smiles of contentment and conviviality...

A final Karma story... My friend left a pair of brand new shoes in our room in Milan. I spoke to the hotel this morning. They told me to call back in half an hour, they would check with housekeeping. Good news, they found the shoes and are mailing them to me...A nice ending to a special trip with a wonderful friend who probably is resting her talked-off ears right this minute;)

Any questions? I'd love to talk Switzerland or Milan with you....

gruezi

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