Looking out the train window at the snow covered Swiss mountains, I had the biggest smile on my face. I was doing it, I was really doing it. Making my dreams happen. The sound of the train tracks were soothing, feeling the one sweeping motion. It was hard to believe that we were racing down the tracks at 575 km/h (357 mph). The journey was only 4 hours long from Lyon to Zürich, and it was stunning scenery along the way.
I was excited to be in Switzerland, not only just to to see the country, but to visit the place where my family is from. I wanted to get to know my roots and to feel that connection to my ancestry and heritage, to the women who came before me. My third great grandmother Sophia Toggweiler immigrated to America in the 1800s. It must have taken so much courage to make a move like that to America. I knew that I would be spending a few days in Zürich, and planned to head to the village of Bonstetten one of those days as that’s where she was raised. It’s about a 30-minute train ride from Zürich city, and Bonstetten is a village of the canton Zürich, which is both a city and a state/province.
My first few days in Zürich were amazing. I arrived at the train station, which was something out of a European movie, and I stood out front awaiting my AirBNB host who agreed to meet me at the train station since I didn’t speak Swiss German. All the streets and train stops were in Swiss German, so she was super kind to meet me! Her name was Anna and she was a kind, beautiful Swiss woman. She walked quickly and helped me with my luggage. We headed to the tram station and she told me all about Zürich as we walked.
My first night in Zürich, I took the tram downtown to a restaurant near the harbor called Café Felix. I had a delicious dinner and my first Swiss hot cocoa! I made it a point to sample the hot cocoas at many places in Zürich, because why not?! It was November, so it was a bit chilly but still warm enough to enjoy walking around the city. I saw the harbor lit up at night, the streets and buildings emerging with a glow from the street lights and water, and I even saw the Lindt chocolate headquarters!
The Swiss architecture is very impressive and iconic, with pointed roofs and tiers that tower above the city. I explored the city my second day and climbed to the top of a 900 year old church called the Grossmünster for about 6 or 8 Swiss Francs. The view of the city and Lake Zürich from there is absolutely epic, so worth the climb!
One of my favorite things about Zürich was the hot cocoa and chocolate shops! My favorite location for chocolate and hot cocoa was at Confiserie Sprüngli which is also a restaurant with delicious food. The chocolates and hot cocoa though…..they are unreal! I also tried Café Schober and had a really nice meal there as well as a great cup of hot cocoa.
There is a candy shop across the street from Café Schober with traditional Swiss candies, and that was fun to go into a Swiss candy store, not going to lie!! I bought so much Swiss and French chocolate while I was in Europe as gifts for myself, and family and friends, that I had a whole other backpack just for all of the stuff I bought. (More humorous stories on that in my post about Iceland).
While in Zürich, I went downtown near the harbor one afternoon around noon and saw all of these people having lunch outside in the sunshine. They were sitting on the steps of the waterfront and looked so happy. Everyone was eating out of little white boxes and I thought, ok this must be a local thing! I have to figure out what this is! So I asked someone, “what is everyone eating?” And they informed me it was a local food joint with amazing rice or noodle dishes – so of course I had to try it! It was absolutely amazing. I can’t remember the dish exactly, but I felt like a real local sitting there in the sun, enjoying the views, watching the swans in the lake near the harbor, the boats coming in. It was a delightful day to say the least.
Visiting the Village of Bonstetten & My Swiss Roots
I remember being so nervous…what would these people think, me coming to their town to ask about my 3rd great grandmother and family name? Would they know anything about Sophia Toggweiler Roseacher or why they immigrated? What if my distant relatives were still there? How amazing would that be. I just wanted to see it for myself.
The 30-minute train ride from the city of Zürich to Bonstetten was of course scenic. Switzerland is stunningly beautiful. The countryside, the mountains, the valleys, all the cottages with smoke escaping from the chimney. We passed other villages and hills of green covered with churches and Swiss homes, the shadowy outlines of other high mountain peaks in the distance. It was so beautiful.
When I stepped off the train, I saw fields of purple wildflowers in front of me. It felt so welcoming. And like a movie honestly. Standing at the train station, I looked around and thought, “wow, I can’t believe I’m really here.” I love wildflowers. They have significance to my story and journey even in moving to Europe, so it felt inviting and like a moment of synchronicity. Once I got off the train, I had to take a bus into the village / town center. All of the signs were in Swiss German, so it made it increasingly difficult to navigate and communicate — but I managed! I was in the Swiss-German speaking part of Switzlerland, but my French is useful near Geneva and that region. Being that Switzerland borders many countries in Europe, there are four languages spoken: Swiss-German, French, Italian, and Romansh.
On the bus ride from the train station we passed historic buildings, churches, Swiss cottages, and farms. The bus driver dropped me off near the town hall and I recognized the Bonstetten flag. I had contacted the town hall beforehand via e-mail and they gave me instructions and told me to come to the office there. When I stepped off the bus, I thought “wow, I’m really here”. This is where my 3rd great grandmother lived. It was a beautiful village surrounded by mountains and farmland and historic architecture. I stepped into the town hall and told them I only spoke English and French, and luckily they spoke English. I spoke with two ladies and told them I had contacted the office and was there to see if they had any information about my family.
They were impressed that I made the journey from Zürich just to be there and they were so kind and willing to help. They first told me that they knew someone still living there with the last name Toggweiler (my grandmother’s maiden name), but that they were not home at the time or out of town. They couldn’t give me addresses of course to visit because well, that’s not legal haha. But they said that they knew of the family name. They mentioned the church down the road and that they might have records as the Swiss are known for keeping tight family records, specifically through the church. The ladies said that I could come back of course if I had the time but I only had that one day to spend there. They gave me a few gifts to keep — a town cook book published with recipes from all the locals and information about the town and village. They gave me stickers and all kinds of gifts! I was so grateful for that, for their kindness and welcoming spirit. That meant so much to me that they would gift me with these items. I looked through the cookbook that day and recognized other family names too. This was such a special gift to me. This was a piece of heritage and connection to my ancestors. The best kind of souvenir.
I walked over to the church to see who I could find. The historic building stood tall and proud in the center of the town and had a beautiful blue and gold clock tower. I saw a few ladies outside and asked them about family records. They invited me into the office and looked up my family name and found several people of course.
It was just neat to confirm that my family had indeed resided there a long time. They were so kind to me and we talked with me for a bit and they told me to enjoy my time exploring the town. I left the office and walked around the front of the church — and the bell starting sounding — this giant clock tower that had rung hundreds and thousands of times before…..it rang so loudly and beautifully.
I just stood there thinking how my grandmother also heard this church bell at some point and I wondered if she stood in the same place as I did. I wondered how she met my 3rd great grandfather (William Roseacher) and how or where they married, if it was once they got to Nashville/Davidson County. I wondered what inspired them to move — was it a promise of wealth and a successful life in America? Was America paying immigrants to come settle in Davidson County? What inspired them to leave everything for this new land?
I continued walking around the town and seeing local pubs and homes, still hearing the bell in the distance. I found my way to a park and started walking down the path, looking at sheep and cows in the pasture beyond me, with rolling hills in the distance. It was a beautiful sunny day. I met a woman along the path pushing her kids in a stroller and we talked briefly. She welcomed me and told me I was brave for coming there to visit and that it was inspiring. We continued on our way and I found a bench. I sat there looking at the beautiful scenery and the Swiss flag in the distance. I took out the chocolates I had bought earlier in the day at Sprüngli, wrapped cutely in a box with ribbon. I sat there eating my chocolates one by one (I bought like four chocolates I think), and I just savored the taste of that moment.
Here I was, eating delicious Swiss chocolate in my grandmother’s village. This was real life. I made this happen. And it was a moment of such deep connection for me. I felt like I was supposed to be there. I wondered what she would have thought of me and my journey. My moving to France at 27 and stepping out into the unknown and choosing an alternative lifestyle. I feel like she would be proud of me, that we had a similar spirit of bravery to leave and travel abroad and leave our country, even if for a brief period of time. I saw the train pass by and heard the whistle, reminding me that I had to get back soon to the bus stop. The sun would set soon and I had to make it back to Zurich.I went back to the town center and had all of my gifts and belongings with me. People greeted me as if I was a local, and I felt honored by that, even though I only knew how to say hello in Swiss German, so I would manage to say “Grüezi!” with a friendly wave every now and then. A gust of wind came through and blew some of my papers out of my hands. This elderly woman walked up to me, smiling, speaking Swiss German, helping me pick up the papers. I told her I spoke English and she smiled, still talking to me in Swiss German, assuming I would get it eventually. I feel like I understood her that day, even though it wasn’t fully translated. Her smile was so kind. And I was impressed with how the elderly Swiss people were so active and full of life, riding bicycles around town and walking everywhere! The lady and I exchanged gestures while I waited for the bus, and I’ll never forget her white hair and gentle smile as we waived goodbye. I managed to sneak into the cafe at the corner to get a snack and Swiss pastry and a soda water for the bus. I stepped onto the bus with gratitude that day, for those few hours I was able to relish in Bonstetten visiting my Swiss roots. Once we got back to the train platform, the sky was aglow across the train tracks and dusk had arrived. I felt my journey was complete that day.
Visiting Lucerne (Luzern)
“Lucerne, a compact city in Switzerland known for its preserved medieval architecture, sits amid snowcapped mountains on Lake Lucerne. Its colorful Altstadt (Old Town) is bordered on the north by 870m Museggmauer (Musegg Wall), a 14-century rampart. The covered Kapellbrücke (Chapel Bridge), built in 1333, links the Old Town to the Reuss River’s right bank.”
Another epic train ride from Zürich to Lucerne was filled with one hour of stunning mountain views and glacial lakes. The Swiss mountains are unparalleled with some of the most beautiful peaks in the world. Leaving the train station in Lucerne puts you immediately on the edge of Lake Lucerne, crossing bridges on foot and heading to the town-center. It was cold, but not yet snowing in November 2015. I enjoyed the crisp air as a cozy invitation to have as many hot cocoas as I wanted while roaming the city 🙂 Because when you’re in Switzerland, it only seems right to cozy up to a cup of hot cocoa.
I found a Starbucks which was interesting because they’re familiar yet different locations around the world. I spoke with a girl attending university locally and she filled me in on the culture. We talked about Christmas since the holiday season was soon approaching and it was super cool to hear Swiss traditions of celebrating St. Nicholas. The Swiss celebrate Christmas a little differently, really with the focus being on the story and history of the real St. Nicholas honored by gift-giving and community festivities.
Lake Lucerne at sunset took my breath away. The pink hues on the horizon, the snow-covered peaks, the glow and reflections on the water, the moon in the sky. I stood there on the bridge taking in the views and appreciating my day in Lucerne. It had been a full day – with lunch in the town center at a cute restaurant with an outdoor patio. I visited the 14th century walking bridge across the river from the town center. I explored the whole city on foot taking in the views and history and architecture, trying different foods along the way. I love learning the history of each place I travel to.
That evening after the sun set, I had trouble figuring out which train to take to Sursee which is where I was staying because it was a quaint Swiss town that had more affordable AirBNB options than Lucerne. I went back to the train station in Lucerne, looking at the time tables, trying to figure out the next departing train but my internet wasn’t working so I couldn’t find anything online. There were several restaurants at the train station upstairs with lovely views of the city, so I decided to dine there that evening. It was actually a delicious meal, buffet style, and quite busy as well. I ended up asking a local woman about the train schedule and she kindly offered me her phone and helped me find the next train. I was so grateful because usually language barriers weren’t an issue, but in this part of Switzerland, not everyone spoke English or French. I appreciated the kindness of strangers throughout my travels. It rebuilt my trust in humanity.
After dinner, I took the train to Sursee and then a taxi to my AirBNB. I arrived at this cute apartment, where these 3 girls lived, and they were around my age. All of them were school teachers and we got along so well. I hung out with them that night and watched a Swiss tv series. We talked about politics, culture, global issues and more. It was so neat to learn about Switzerland, the lifestyle, healthcare, government, and more. That’s one thing I appreciate when I travel is learning from many different cultures.
The next day was a rest day. I had planned to stay in the village of Sursee for a night or two and explore the town, coffee shops, and local fair. I needed to go to the post office to send back a suitcase to the States and my gifts from Bonstetten.
Visiting the Village of Sursee
Sursee is a village that sits 25 minutes outside Lucerne by train. It’s an easy train ride with panoramic mountain views. People greeted me in Swiss-German here more than any other place, and I felt so at home. I smiled and waved back, saying hello in Swiss-German, and I enjoyed seeing all the locals biking through the town. I saw the first big snowfall of the season from Sursee. It was quite magical actually, walking through the snowy weather into a cozy coffee shop in this little Swiss town.
I actually had to send a piece of luggage back to the States from Sursee because even though I had packed my whole life into 2 suitcases and a backpack, I couldn’t manage all the luggage in between train changes. I had almost missed my train once before in Zurich and had to run and jump across platforms, which was kind of fun actually, but missing my train wouldn’t have been fun. If it wasn’t for the kind, handsome guy from England who helped me with my suitcase, I would’ve missed my train. Thankful for kind, handsome British guys 😉
My 2nd day in Sursee was really fun and relaxing. I explored the town, the boutiques, restaurants, local coffee shop, and the Swiss fromagerie where I got the best local Gruyère cheese ever! In France and Switzerland, at the cafes, all the coffees come with wrapped chocolates of some sort, or cinnamon cookies like Biscoff. Super cute.
My experience at the Swiss Post office was interesting. No one spoke English in Sursee hardly at all — so when it came to ordering food, I was pointing at menu items, and trying to communicate with the post office staff was almost impossible. The man became frustrated because I couldn’t speak Swiss-German (and I think he expected me to because I look Swiss of course) and so I wrote everything down that I could in Swiss-German. I just needed to send back my small suitcase and the gifts from Bonstetten. I had left several things with the girls at the AirBNB, including a cute pair of boots, but I couldn’t manage with 2 suitcases anymore. After an hour at the post office, I finally made it through and had successfully sent off my items, and managed a smile from the man at the counter too. That was a success because I don’t think they were used to visitors.
My last day there, I got to witness the first snowfall of the season. It was a special moment, snow falling down, waiting for the train, mountains around me in all directions. This was my last day in Switzerland so it made it even more special. I had to head back to Lyon and was going to be staying with a friend of a friend, so I was looking forward to that. This was my journal entry that day that I wrote:
My last day in Switzerland was so beautiful. I saw the first big snow of the season. I spent time in Luzern this week with views of the Alps covered in snow. I sent one of my suitcases back to America full of clothes and shoes I didn’t need. Considering I had to take 5 trains today all the way back to France, I was so thankful to finally just have my 1 giant suitcase and backpack. I ate at a local shop inside the train station and sipped a coffee with a little Tobblerone Swiss chocolate that came with, staring at the Alps, trying to take it all in. I almost missed my train from Zürich to Basel because I was buying Swiss chocolate in the train station just once more before I left. But luckily the train was cancelled anyway, so I whispered a thank you to the heavens 🙂 It has been an adventure to get back from Switzerland – our train broke down in Dijon – I met some awesome people my age on the train and we played cards the whole way back to France. I am SO glad to be back in France and speaking and hearing the language I know again. Though I managed to learn a few Swiss-German words. What a week! All I need now is a glass of wine, some cheese, a croissant, and a crème brûlée. For real.