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Falling in love with Switzerland (14545)

14545Advocate Travel2004-12-08

Falling in love with Switzerland

The Alps are the reason to travel to Switzerland.

Nine days; four Swiss cities; two Paul Klee museums; countless clubs, restaurants, and bottles of wine; and one afternoon spent at 10,000 feet has this gay traveler asking, When can I go back?

Adam B. Vary

Let's get this out of the way first: The Alps are the reason to travel to Switzerland. There are, of course, many reasons to travel to Switzerland, especially for the gay traveler: the people, the cities, the clubs, the art, the food, the wine, the chocolate (the average Swiss person consumes 26 pounds of it a year)... But let's face it, the Alps are the main draw, and as natural monuments go, they surely rank with the Rocky Mountains, Niagara Falls, the California redwoods, and even the Grand Canyon.

Much of the the appeal of these picturesque mountains is, I think, due to the air. The Swiss government is rabid about pollution control, which means the air is so clean that the view is almost too crisp and clear to be believed by American eyes accustomed to urban haze and smog. The sky itself is fairly impossible, vast yet so close, expressive and supple.

The whole terrain is like this, really. There are countless parts of the country where, anywhere you choose to look, you're immediately greeted by towering, snowcapped mountains hugged by wispy clouds that reach so high you can't tell where the mountain ends and the sky begins. They are ennobling and humbling in one breath, a Promethean gift from nature that the Swiss have nurtured and preserved with true pride and deep respect.

So, yeah, the Alps: A+.

Nevertheless, the Alps were but one of many highlights on a gay press tour I took of the country this fall. On our first day, at a meet-and-greet in Zurich, I asked a member of the Swiss tourism board about the country's image, and without hesitation he spoke of Switzerland's rather stodgy persona--think Ricola, clock makers, and cows. They're trying to demonstrate, he said, that the country has become much more modern and cosmopolitan, especially over the past 10 years.

On a tour that took me from Zurich, the country's biggest city, to Bern, its storybook capital, to Geneva, its international nexus, to Luzern, the most "Swiss" city of the trip, I got to see just that.

You must understand, Switzerland is a small country of only 7.3 million people, fewer than New York City. So if you're looking for the bustle and thrum of a Paris, Berlin, or London, expect to be disappointed. To my eye, however, these four Swiss cities had the best of both worlds: all the amenities one expects in a major urban center--good clubs, good bars, good restaurants, good public transport, good shopping, good eye candy--but half the hassle and headache of trying to navigate it all.

With four official languages (German, French, Italian, and Romansch) the multilingual Swiss are almost always at least conversant in English (especially within the tourism industry), and you'll find none of the lingual snobbery common among some of the country's European neighbors. Add to the unrivaled Swiss hospitality a laissez-faire gay-friendliness that put me absolutely at ease throughout my stay, and I'm quite ready to declare Switzerland Europe's best kept secret in gay travel.


Switzerland's biggest city is also the most gay savvy, and it reportedly boasts the highest standard of living in the world. At least 10 diverse gay bars and clubs are closely clustered in the pedestrians-only Old Town.

Revelers at the 2004 street parade

Low key, neighborhood bar hounds will warm to Cranberry Bar or the Tip Top Z Bar, while those seeking dancing, decadent or dark, will enjoy nearby T&M Disco and AAAH!, respectively. An added bonus: T&M and AAAH! are in the same building, literally just a staircase apart.

Several gay and gay-friendly establishments reside in Zurich West, the former industrial district that's now a burgeoning center for banking, restaurants, and residences. Labyrinth is the standout club among them. While you're out there, check out Labor Bar, especially during their weekly "Sunday Trash" night

Saints and sinners at the 2004 street parade

If mind-bogglingly massive crowds are your bag but Berlin's Love Parade seems too "been there, done that"--or if, worse yet, it's canceled again--then plan to attend Zurich's annual Street Parade to trance and techno out with more than 700,000 fellow partyers. To put things in perspective, that's almost twice Zurich's usual population.

And then there's the shopping. The Bahnhofstrasse, a long boulevard extending across town from the main train station to Lake Zurich, is a designer shopper's paradise, with Macy's-style malls, high-end jewelry boutiques, and confectioners to rival Willy Wonka.

For a good laugh and a good lunch, stop into Uncle Sam's, an "American style" pizza joint with nary a pepperoni in sight. They may not get the pizza quite right, but they sure do nail American kitsch.

A trip to the Museum of Fine Arts, with its extensive collection of Alberto Giacometti, is perfect for a rainy day, while Marc Chagall's stunning stained-glass windows can still be seen at the currently renovating Fraumunster. Take a studied stroll along the narrow Old Town streets and you could find yourself in front of Vladimir Lenin's home, where he lived immediately prior to his fateful 1917 trip back to Moscow; you may even discover the birthplace of the Dada movement, great-granddaddy to Andy Warhol, MTV, and the fourth-grade poster collage project.

Swiss cuisine--responsible for the do-it-yourself fun of fondue and raclette--leaves something to be desired for this writer's persnickety palate, but that shouldn't stop you from partaking, and Adler's Swiss Chuchi has got the goods. If you'd rather not, several new restaurants in Zurich West should satisfy, including the stunning LaSalle and the soup-centered Zuppamundial.

For lodging, the four-star Hotel zum Storchen sits right on the River Limmat, and the Hotel Widder is a charming mix of the very old and the very new.


Bern's homeboy, Big Al

Bern--the fourth largest city and the nation's capital--is somehow both the most Germanic and the most cozy city we visited. The vast majority of its buildings, products of nearby sandstone quarries, are tinted gray-green by an indigenous algae, casting an Old World countenance over the entire city.

Bern sits inside a tight, U-shaped bend in the very high-banked Aare River, making the city as vertical as it is compact. Its storybook charm--geraniums sprout from almost every windowsill--has won it international acclaim as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Oh, and Einstein once called the city home.

The city's small size means that most nightspots are more gay-friendly than exclusively gay, the dramatic high-ceilinged Kornhauskeller a highlight among them. There are, though, some standout gay establishments. Aux Petits Fours is a comfy nook in which to catch a drink. Samurai, Bern's oldest gay bar, makes up for its 1980s fern bar decor with its charming staff, great music, and lively atmosphere. Just a few steps away, the brand new Prinzclub has everything one has come to expect in a European gay club: a place to lounge, a place to dance, and a place to gaze at mod movies projected against a large white wall.

Swiss misters at the Prinzclub

During the day, if Bern's four miles of covered shopping promenades don't win you over, we don't know what will. Even if you don't plan on shopping, it's advisable to stick to the enclosed arcades when traveling by foot: The cobblestone streets are home to red cable cars that go quite fast and don't so much stop for the wayward American pedestrian.

The Museum of Fine Arts boasts an exquisitely efficient collection, featuring a few perfectly selected works each by Picasso, Renoir, Matisse, Cezanne, Giacometti, Miro, Rothko, and Pollack. A small wing dedicated to Paul Klee is due to be usurped in June 2005 by a world-class Paul Klee Center devoted exclusively to the one-of-a-kind master of color and abstract shape.

For excellent food, seek out Lorenzini, a very gay-friendly Italian Trattoria buzzing with movement and conversation, or Cinematte, a quiet spot settled down by the river featuring an eclectic menu to go with its regular screenings of European cinema. (A Pedro Almodovar retrospective was the feature during our visit.)

Just across the Aare, the four-star Allegro Hotel and Grand Casino is an outstanding setting in which to rest and relax--that is, if you're not marveling at its unique architecture, chatting with its friendly staff, or watching your money evaporate at the blackjack tables.


Although Zurich is the bigger city, Geneva, headquarters of the European branch of the U.N. and the capital of the International Red Cross, is by far the cosmopolitan center of Switzerland. The city is surrounded on almost all sides by the French Alps and the train ride in and out of town, running along the western edge of Lake Geneva, the towering mountainsides reflected perfectly in its pristine waters, is reason alone to visit.

When you do arrive, be sure to stroll around the Les Paquis district, just east of the train station between the Rue de Lausanne and the Quai du Mont Blanc--the diverse area contains several gay and gay-friendly bars, restaurants, shops, and organizations. Nearby bar Le Nathan is regarded as the best gay bar in town, and just across the Rhone, Geneva's only gay club, Le Pretexte, is open exclusively on weekends (and really only bumping Friday and Saturday nights).

Visiting the lone French-speaking city on our tour, it was only fitting that we spent part of our day there wine tasting at Paradis, one of over 40 vineyards in the area that offers free wine tasting if you call ahead. The light, soft-bodied Swiss wines are woefully underrepresented internationally, so anyone even remotely interested in wine would do well to partake of the local products. (You can do so at many of Geneva's countless restaurants, reflecting almost every cuisine imaginable, from French and Italian to Ethiopian, Indian, and Japanese.)

Hotel Jade makes the most of its three-star rating with its use of feng shui throughout, but if you really want to pamper yourself, spend an afternoon at La Reserve Hotel and Spa, a five-star resort along Lake Geneva that provided one of the most relaxing massages I've ever received.

As we leave Geneva, it is as good a time as any to mention the breathtaking efficiency of the Swiss public transportation system. Everything really does run like clockwork, so if a schedule has the next train from Geneva leaving at 10:43, you'd better be on it by 10:42. If you're going to be touring the country for more than five days or so, I highly suggest purchasing a Swiss Pass or a Swiss Flexi Pass , which will get you access to any bus, tram, boat, or train within the Swiss transportation system, both local and national, including taking the scenic route from Geneva to...


While the journey can last a scant three hours if you take the main train routes, it is absolutely mandatory to take the Golden Pass Rail Line for at least part of the journey between Geneva and Luzern. The winding rails and oversize windows are the perfect way to see the idyllic Alpean valleys, mountainsides, and tucked-away towns, as much a part of the Swiss experience as any gay club or fine restaurant.

Once you arrive in Luzern, you may notice that this quintessential Swiss city does not have the most developed gay scene; the only gay bar we found was Space, a quaint little dive bar with an astronaut and an alien in the window and decor dominated by a loving mural tribute to, er, Star Wars: Episode II--The Attack of the Clones. There are several other clubs in town that are quite gay-friendly: P1 and Penthouse are the standouts. But then, you don't really travel to Luzern to go clubbing.

Instead, enjoy simply strolling through the city, taking in its many opulent outdoor murals (which are repainted every 10 years) and the city's famed covered Chapel Bridge, which survived 700 years of history before it was almost completely destroyed by fire in 1993 and then reconstructed anew. The Rosengart Collection, meanwhile, boasts one of the finest collections of Picasso and Paul Klee in the world.

If you feel like splurging on sleek, boutique lodging, you could do no better than The Hotel. Designed by prominent architect Jean Nouvel, its 25 unique rooms feature wall-to-wall ceiling photographs taken from world cinema--Fellini, Almodovar, Bertolucci, Bunuel, Fassbinder, Lynch, etc.--and a lobby lounge that will instantly make you feel more hip and happening for having stepped inside it. Eat at its basement East-meets-West restaurant, Bam Bau, and you'll be toasting your peerless sophistication and style.


From Luzern, hop a train to Engelberg, a ski town an hour due south. Wear lots of layers, bring your camera, and, leaving your fear of heights at the train station, follow the signs to the ski lifts. Three gondola rides later--including Rotair, the first revolving cable car in the world--and you're at 10,000 feet on the snowcapped top of Mt. Titlis.

The whipping wind is cold, sure, but no worse than the harshest winds off Lake Michigan in Chicago, and besides, the view is...well, it's beyond words. Be sure to explore the creepy cool glacier cave and, if you're feeling particularly brave, take the Ice Flyer chairlift over mountain crevasses that plunge for half a mile.

Your adrenaline will only sustain you so far before the altitude gets to you and your energy level plummets, so be sure to snag some food while you're up there--we suggest a toast to your trip over a steaming glass of cinnamon-tinged mulled wine.

A final note: The Swiss may not be the warmest people in the world, but not once did I ever encounter even a whiff of homophobia. Several of the regional cantons have already adopted domestic partnership rights for gay couples, and the entire country is scheduled to vote on a referendum for national civil unions next year that we're told is most certain to pass.

Switzerland is a country that deeply values its environment, maintains a rigorous military, is one of the premiere banking centers in the world, prides itself on first-class efficiency and service for its visitors, and welcomes diversity among its own people. It is also a country that treats its cows incredibly well.

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