We were in Cortina d’Ampezzo right smack in the Italian Dolomites and I was looking at the route on the map for our next destination which was Zermatt in Switzerland. I saw that we had to go north through Austria first before making a left hook to the Swiss border. But if we made a small detour after Innsbruck, we could skirt by Garmisch-Partenkirchen just inside German territory and later tweak the route a bit to breeze through little Liechtenstein, thus passing through 5 countries in a day. It would be quite an adventure! So I plotted out traversing 885 kms. in 9 hours though if we made stops, of course, it would take much more time but still arrive at our destination in one day.
So we left the small town of Tre Cime at 5:00 AM before the sun rose and took the long and winding road through the Dolomites whose peaks rose to 3,300 meters. The scenery was breathtaking which made me drive slowly and stop more often to take pictures. The Dolomiti, as the Italians call it, is a mountain range that is part of the Southern Alps which is well-renowned for mountain climbing, cycling, and hiking in summer as well as skiing in winter. The views are a photographer’s delight specially the mountain passes where the pointed pale limestone rocks reach upward to the blue sky, contrasting sharply against the lush evergreen vegetation below.
It was almost noon when we reached the outskirts of Innsbruck where we planned to make a pit stop for lunch but a wrong turn (okay, the car had no GPS so I only relied on my old Atlas map to navigate) ended in a long tunnel and before we knew it, we were almost at the German border! As we entered Garmisch-Partenkirchen it was raining cats and dogs so we stopped before reaching the town center to have lunch at a local restaurant that had the hallmarks of authentic Bavarian design: heavy gable roof plus wood paneling everywhere on the floor, ceiling, windows, and deck. The food was great and we tried their venison steaks which the waiter said came from game freshly shot in the woods just a day before!
The place is a Bavarian ski town that has the highest mountain in Germany, the 2,962-meter high Zugspitze and was the site of the 1936 Winter Olympic games. Hitler, by decree, united the two small towns of Garmisch and Partenkirchen just so that the IOC would approve of having the Olympics being held there. We took the cogwheel train up to the Zugspitze where we were rewarded with beautiful views of the German Alps as well as being able to peer at the Swiss Alps in the far distance.
Back on the road, we zipped right back to Austria passing thru lovely, green alpine countryside and headed for Vaduz, the capital of Liechtenstein the fourth-smallest country and one of the richest in Europe with a total area of only 160 square kilometers and a population of about 37,000 only. Upon entering the border, it took us only a few minutes before we arrived in the city center which was pretty compact and we ended up at the black granite-clad Kunstmuseum which exhibited modern and contemporary art. Unfortunately, the post office was already closed so we were unable to buy the famous Liechtenstein stamps. Close by was the St. Florin Catholic Cathedral with its tall pointed steeple which surprisingly also functioned as a clock tower!
We drove up a zigzag road to Vaduz Castle which overlooks the city from the top of a heavily forested hill. This is where the Prince of Liechtenstein and his family live so it wasn’t open to the public. But from the castle’s ramparts, we could view the whole spread of the postcard-pretty city with majestic mountains looming in the background.
The Rhine flows right along the border with Switzerland and we crossed a long bridge before we started to climb up the mountains. As if on cue, rain started to pour heavily blanketing everything in white sheets! The two-lane road was narrow with hairpin turns and there were no barriers to protect any unlucky car from sliding down into the abyss below. It was pretty scary so I had to gingerly drive while trying to keep within the middle of the road as I looked out for any oncoming traffic. Good thing there were only a few cars that we met, their headlights stabbing the fog that rolled in when the rain stopped.
This went on for almost two hours as we climbed higher and higher and it made me realize how mountainous Switzerland really was! Once we reached the top, I stopped when we passed by a lookout point and the wife brought out the sandwiches and cold drinks we bought earlier at the highway rest stop. We ate in silence as darkness slowly enveloped us and we could see the villages far below with their lights glowing like embers of a dying campfire. It was quite a sublime moment even if it was chilly standing outside the car in the cold air. I looked at my watch and it was half-past nine PM.
The way down to the valley was through another series of switchbacks which was a joy to drive – there’s something really exciting about whizzing down a series of twists and turns in the darkness with your headlights brightly illuminating the ribbon of asphalt in front of you with the wind blowing thru the sunroof! We skirted the towns of Davos, Andermatt, and Brig until we got to Tasch which was the place where you leave your car in a huge carpark since they don’t allow motor vehicles in Zermatt itself. From there, we took the short 10-minute train ride into the city center finally arriving at our cozy boutique hotel where we took the key to our room from an envelope with our name written on it at the reception desk for there was nobody else around. It was just a few minutes before midnight as I looked at the cuckoo clock on the wall.
Why did we come to this place? Well, because of the Matterhorn. That famous mountain you see in every pack of Toblerone chocolate. It’s also the starting point of the Glacier Express, the most picturesque train journey in all of Switzerland which we planned to ride. And so getting here was quite a feat by itself – driving 885 kms. through five countries in 19 hours to be exact. Now, how cool is that!