The Great Unknown
IT WASN’T BY ACCIDENT I arrived early to the train platform that morning. Rumors of the Swiss train system’s punctuality had not only piqued my curiosity but also inspired my 15-minuteearlier wake-up call. I took a seat near my platform in the Zürich Main Station, one of the busiest in the world, and marveled endlessly as the iconic Swiss Railway Clock took its 1.5-second pause before it started its next minute rotation, a design thought to “bring calm in the last moment and easy punctual train departure.”
Like many European travelers, I’ve picnicked beneath the Eiffel Tower in Paris, pröst-ed at Oktoberfest in Munich and snapped a selfie at the Tower of Pisa, and now the lesser-known destinations and obscure experiences beckoned. Armed with a Swiss Travel Pass from Rail Europe — the pass gives holders access to trains, buses and boats as well as free entrance to 500-plus museums, with suggested itineraries and tips for getting off the beaten path — I boarded the train on time and set off on a journey to explore the cities I had never heard of before and experience Europe’s less famous foods, sights and smells.
In response to a recent travel report from Intrepid Adventure Travel that found 43.4 percent of travelers look to get off the beaten track, many tour operators increase their offerings to include tours of little-known sites throughout Europe. Rail Europe makes it easy to hop around to these undiscovered destinations, but tour operators like Intrepid Travel also offer options such as hiking tours through Andorra and rafting trips through Slovenia.
Best of the Alps, a cooperation among many Alpine destinations, encourages travelers to get out and interact with locals throughout Germany, Austria, Italy and Switzerland. Its website features a range of artists, adventurous men and women, chefs and others who tell their stories and offer inspiration for ideas on what to eat, drink and do while in town. Hear from a wooden sledge maker about the 100-year-old history of these hybrid snow bicycle/sleds before taking to the hills in his native Grindelwald for a test drive through the snow, or learn why one of the country’s most celebrated chefs now cooks for an exclusive crowd within a furniture store in Davos before you book one of the few tables in the store.