Last year I built several trips around climbing world cups, kicking off the bouldering season in Meiringen before crossing the pond for back to back bouldering and speed competitions in Salt Lake City. Closer to home, I also tried to attend a lead world cup in Edinburgh – travelling up, but failing to obtain a ticket!
For 2023 I considered a similar world cup tour, until I spotted that an even bigger event – the biannual world championships – would be held in Bern. The opportunity to return to Switzerland, explore an unvisited city there, and see the world’s best climbers battling it out for an Olympic spot seemed like the best way to get my sporting fix this year.
This was my first international trip since moving to Exeter, another 75 miles deeper into the south west of the UK. Although my new city has an airport – which I am keen to try – it serves only a handful of destinations mostly in the British Isles. So I redeemed some avios for Heathrow – Zurich in Club Europe: 13,750 points and £90 in fees vs a £757 asking price, although I could have flown CityFlyer to Geneva for half that.
There are no great public transport options between Exeter and London. A direct airport coach is still at least 3.5 hours each way; trains are much faster and far more comfortable, but an anytime ticket is a shocking £300 return. I compromised with an off-peak fare: still over £100, and necessitating both an overnight stay on the way up, and a couple of hours waiting around in Paddington before I would be allowed to board a train home. Unhelpfully, the first one I was eligible for was cancelled, and Devon services are only hourly – although that did win me half my money back!
Since 2020 all my BA short haul flying has been in Club Europe – without status, it’s a definite improvement to the whole experience. Arguably the benefits are greater on the ground than in the air, breezing through security and into a lounge. As I’d discovered last year, the one at ZRH is particularly good, with impressive views and plenty of food. But I’m still fond of the LHR galleries and on this occasion I’m awarding bonus points for the addition of tater tots to the breakfast buffet. Of the flights themselves, there’s little to report, with only an hour and a quarter in the air easily passed by a light meal and admiring views of Switzerland.
In Meiringen I had received free local transport throughout my stay, but for the World Championships the Swiss had gone even better: event tickets were also good for same day travel between Bern and anywhere in the country. My 80 minute rail journey there was great: I was one of only two passengers in the carriage, where I was able to enjoy my book, snacks, and views of the Aare.
Returning the day after finals I had to pay my own way, and didn’t much fancy the CHF51 (~£46) standard fare. I opted instead for a CHF38 super saver which locked me to a particular train, departing about an hour later than I’d have liked. Worse, this was a slower stopping service – which for reasons only explained in German terminated half way, at Olten. I realised this just in time to avoid being transported back towards Bern, but not swiftly enough to make a connection, costing me another half hour. Next time I’ll just pay full price…
I had picked three action-packed days of climbing: the men’s boulder semis and finals on Friday; the women’s on Saturday; then both cohort’s lead rounds on Sunday. This added up to 13 hours at the arena – and at least another 4 queueing for a decent seat! In a deeply talented field, star of the show was, of course, Janja Garnbret, who I literally never saw fall throughout the weekend.
Witnessing this – and countless other dramatic moments – live and as part of a huge crowd was incredible, but left little time for Bern itself. Poor weather and an out-of-the-way hotel didn’t help, but I did venture out on Saturday afternoon. From the Hauptbahnhof I made my way down to the Aare, following its meander as far as the bridges and bear park before returning through the historic centre. The Old City of Bern, dating back to the 12th century, holds UNESCO world heritage status for its “exceptional coherence”, and is clearly worthy of greater investigation than I was able to afford it. But I’m glad I got at least a sample!
Last year I had been sad to see no more of Zurich than its airport, station and a hotel, so for this trip I built in opportunities to revisit the city proper. I spent several hours just wandering about or relaxing at the lake, but I also had some architectural landmarks in mind.
Pavillon Le Corbusier was the final work by the enormously influential architect. In some ways it exemplifies his ideals – particularly his ‘Modulor’ system of proportions – but in others it is unique, being his only building not to make use of concrete. I was able to make up for that by visiting the Swissmill Tower, 118 metres of Brutalism which surprisingly is only a decade old.
This six night trip somehow involved four different hotels… The T5 Premier Inn at Heathrow is a regular haunt, whilst at ZRH I also have a favourite, the Hilton. The airline staff rate has jumped from £75 to £110, but HHonors gold status yielded an upgrade to an executive room with lounge access. I also made sure this time to check out late enough to enjoy the extensive free breakfast 🙂 (and was pleased to still get HHonors points).
In Bern I was just one of thousands of sports fans looking for accommodation near the venue – there was a football match that weekend too. I settled on the bizarrely named Stay KooooK, at nearly £150 per night for a studio apartment. The property had some interesting ideas not always well executed: the moving divider to trade space between kitchen and living area could no longer move, whilst the app for controlling doors would lose signal in the lifts. A crossbow with suction-cup darts was also a strange in-room amenity! But it was a short walk from the climbing, and had a couple of nearby supermarkets to keep my food costs down.
My final night was at the Crowne Plaza Zurich, which was more expensive than the Hilton and offered fewer status perks (although a welcome gift of Lindt pralines was much appreciated after my long journey). Its location was less convenient than I imagined, with not much in the immediate area; a tram down to the lake took about 25 minutes. Nothing wrong with the place, but I doubt I’ll return unless I’m really concentrating on the IHG One Rewards programme.
Between self-catering, lounge foraging and food on the go I don’t have a single restaurant to recommend. But I can definitely vouch for SPIGA in the shopping mall underneath Zurich Hauptbahnhof, which I visited twice in my short time in Zurich. Their Neapolitan pizzas are already an excellent train lunch, but if you’re lucky you’ll also be offered a small pot of Nutella to turn the crusts into dessert – an inspired idea.
Photos from both Zurich and Bern can be found in the next post.