Do you love to travel but end up not traveling frequently because you wait around for company? My advice: don’t wait! Growing up in India, I had never experienced traveling alone, more so because of safety concerns than anything else. Living in Germany was absolutely liberating for me in that sense, when I learned the joy of traveling alone carefree.
One of my most memorable solo trips was exactly two years back, when I traveled alone to Switzerland. It was right after my PhD defense, when I felt like a free bird, but everyone else was too busy for an impromptu vacation. So, I decided to go to Switzerland for a few days. First advice of traveling solo: alone need not mean lonely. You can always contact friends in some places or make friends along the way. I happened to do both in this case.
My first stop was Neuchatel, a small village near Lausanne, where I spent a couple of days at a friend’s place. This village is in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. There was a nice lake, about 10 minutes walk from my friend’s apartment on one side, and a railway station about 10 minutes in the opposite direction. That pretty much covered the entire village, I think.
Thankfully, there are always mountains a few minutes of train ride away from any place in Switzerland. I remember a lovely day-hike in Areuse gorge on one of the days; a shaded hike on a sunny day with frequent ‘Bonjours’ of friendly fellow hikers. The landscape changed as we progressed, starting out as rocky slopes, then wide waterfalls, and sudden green patches. A day well spent!
After those two days, I had literally no plan, no booking. I chose Lausanne as my next stop, found a cheap (this term is always relative; nothing is really cheap in Switzerland!) hostel room near a lake, and took the afternoon train out. I found my hostel after a customary ritual of hopelessly losing my way. The rest of the evening was uneventful; I spent it by a lake populated with carefree high school girls on their first Europe visit, families on a picnic or locals BBQ-ing out there.
The next morning was THE HIGHLIGHT of my ‘touristy’ plans. This place had been on my list ever since I saw its picture somewhere: Chateau de Chillon. Its a castle perched on a rock right by the lake Geneva. I just love European castles; they are so grand and commanding. As I approached it from a distance, the castle did not disappoint! I took a tour of the castle, brought to life with vivid descriptions of the prison and torture chambers by the audio guide.
I remembered reading something about a scenic ferry ride, which was also a means of transport between the villages in the Swiss riviera. I hopped aboard the scenic Alpine cruise and was delighted when I realized that it could drop me right outside my hostel in Vevey, my next destination.
The Vevey Hotel & Guesthouse is probably one of the cleanest and best located hostels that I have stayed at; its literally on the lake. Vevey is a very small village, but it is perfect for a non-crowded relaxing vacation. I also knew exactly what I wanted to do that evening: attend the Montreux jazz festival about 20 minutes from this place. This is one of the most celebrated jazz festivals in Switzerland. For about two weeks in July, tents are set up right along the waterfront in Montreux, and its one big picnic with open air and indoor concerts. I found a spot in a free open air concert, while a friendly local entertained me with his tales of his years in South Africa. The whole atmosphere was so energetic. I admit this was one place where I missed having a group of people around. When I finally left back for the hostel, I was still wondering if I should head home the next day or stay for another day. The last minute train prices made the call: I had to stay another day, but in the end, I am glad I did.
The next morning at breakfast, I happened to meet an interesting old woman, Guilliana. She was full of energy and life! I found out that she stayed in the hostel because of it’s great location. Her mobile home was in a village close by, and when she invited me to go over and meet her dogs, I thought why not. Guilliana’s tales were probably more courageous than of any woman that I know. She is a type of woman who hitchhikes, talks about GMOs, and buys cigarettes from young hostelers. I absolutely enjoyed my day with her and her dogs, and she promised to send me a letter addressing me as Dr. Minu (which she did).
That evening I went back to Lausanne and sat by the lake to kill time until my train. I have to mention this seemingly mundane activity because it was one of my most memorable moments on the trip: just sitting by the lake and gazing at the Alps on a perfect, breezy summer day. No agenda, no tourism, just relaxing.
A downside of my last minute travel ideas was that I was left with no choice but to book a train at odd hour. So, I found myself walking around in middle of the night during my stopover in Basel until I finally took the train back home at 6 am to sleep off for the day.
In general, for crowded trains in Europe, I usually bought a coffee and sat in the pantry wagon. Its the same cost as reserving a seat (3-4$), so might as well get some coffee out of it.
Most hostels/hotels in the Swiss riviera gives a travel card to the guests that covers free train rides in this region and offers discounts on the scenic cruises. Be sure to check for these.
The Swiss local (the one who narrated tales of South Africa) told me that buying last minute tickets for indoor concerts just after it starts turns out way cheaper than buying beforehand, only if you are willing to risk the concert being sold out, of course.