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Switzerland: More Than Chocolate And Skiing

By: Peter I. Volny

Tax-haven? Perhaps not so much any more. Watches? The gold standard. Skiing? World class. Chocolate? World’s best. Cheese? Synonymous. But who knew that the Swiss made great wine? Or had arguably the world’s best lamb? Or that, despite rumours to the contrary, they are very friendly?

For a very long time Canadians have regarded Switzerland as primarily a ski destination and with iconic ski towns like Zermatt, St. Moritz, and Interlaken to name just three it certainly is that. But oh, what a delightful place it is in spring, summer, and fall as well.

Board a plane at night in Canada and early the next morning you’re in Zurich where the ultra-efficient Swiss passport control will have you processed before you can say Gruyere.

Best Rail System

Switzerland has what is probably the world’s best rail system and trains are the ideal way to travel about, especially with the First Class Swiss Pass. It also offers 50 per cent discounts on most mountain railways and cable cars, plus free admission to almost 500 museums.

Lucerne from a penthouse balcony at the Hotel Montana

There are many great benefits to train travel, at least in Switzerland where they operate on a very precise schedule. Stations are well located in city and town centres, often within comfortable walking distance of great hotels. You don’t have to arrive hours before your trip or pass through rigorous security screening. Even better, you get to keep your bags with you so there’s no interminable waiting at crowded luggage carousals. Perhaps best of all is that trains operate at ground level where all the scenery is located. After all, the clouds over Switzerland look the same as the clouds over Canada. So hop aboard a very comfortable inter-city train right at the airport and a very scenic hour later you are in picture postcard perfect Lucerne.

Situated majestically on Lake Lucerne with towering peaks all around, Lucerne takes your breath away. A wonderful place to stay is the Art Deco Hotel Montana – high up on a hill with encompassing views of the town and lake below. Built in 1910, it had the foresight to install a private funicular to carry guests up and down the steep hill from the lakeshore. Book a penthouse spa suite and, after a sumptuous dinner in any of the many gourmet restaurants, luxuriate in your own private and secluded balcony spa with a nightcap, watching the twinkling town lights far below.

One of two covered bridges in Lucerne

Lucerne has two covered bridges over the Reuss River. The Chapel Bridge and Water Tower date back to the 14th century although they were faithfully reconstructed in the early 1990s following a damaging fire. Both banks of the river are lined with classical buildings, most with riverfront restaurants and bars. Grab a table in the sun and relax over a traditional Aperol Spritz and chewy pretzel. Throughout the year, Lucerne hosts festivals with blues, jazz, rock, and comedians.

Steepest Cogwheel Train

A 20-minute scenic train ride takes you to the foot of Mt. Pilatus where a ride on the world’s steepest cogwheel train, at 48 degrees, takes you to the summit. Even more spectacular is the first revolving aerial cable car – the Rotair – to the top of Mt. Titlis at 3,000 metres. Here you can venture through a 150-metre long tunnel carved right into the ice of the glacier and, for those without vertigo, walk across the highest suspension bridge in Europe with the glacier 500 metres below – definitely not for the faint of heart.

Lindner Grand Beau Rivage
The Lindner Grand Beau Rivage

After all that fresh air, you’ll have worked up a healthy appetite so two recommended restaurants are the Rebstock for traditional, hearty Swiss fare and the very trendy Balances where you should secure a riverside table. And do by all means sample Swiss wines, which are very good. When asked why they are not available in Canada, waiters will knowingly smile and tell you they simply don’t produce enough to export after the thirsty Swiss have consumed their share.

Interlaken is a two-hour, mountain and lake studded train ride away. Situated at only 568 metres, the climate is mild enough to support palm trees, not something you’d expect to see in Switzerland. Conveniently located a five-minute walk from the station is the art-nouveau Lindner Grand Beau Rivage Hotel dating back to 1874. Take a suite on an upper floor for views of some of Switzerland’s most majestic mountains.

The famous North Wall of the Eiger.

A short 25-minute train ride takes you to the quaint town of Murren where a series of three cable cars and a mountain train take you to the summit of the Schilthorn at an elevation of 2,970 metres. An amazing feat of construction is the Piz Gloria revolving restaurant where James Bond’s ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’ was filmed. It now also houses a Bond exhibit. A large open sun deck affords breath-taking 360 degree views of three of Switzerland’s highest peaks – the Jungfrau at 4,158 metres, the Monch at 4,107 metres, and the Eiger, of movie fame, at 3,970 metres.

Another train takes you to the small town of Lauterbrunnen, site of the 300-metre Staubbach Falls, the largest of some 72 falls in this valley. However, the real attraction here is the subterranean Trümmelbach Falls, the world’s only glacier waterfalls. Encased wholly within a mountain and accessible by an incline lift and a series of tunnels and paths, it offers close-up views at several stages as 20,000 litres of water per second thunder through constantly carving the surrounding rock.

Sphinx Observatory
The Sphinx Observatory on the top of the Jungfrau at 3,571 metres.

The most important sight in the Interlaken area is, of course, the magnificent Jungfrau. However, a word of caution, check the weather forecast before you go to make sure that it’s clear at the summit. Don’t be dissuaded by the weather in town as it can be quite different. It’s a three-train, 2½-hour trip passing through Grindelewald and Kleine Scheidegg to the highest railway station in the world at 3,454 metres. The last seven kilometres is on a cog railway wholly inside the mountain itself. The train does stop twice to let you peer through panoramic lookouts which have been carved into the rock.

The Sphinx

At the top is a building called The Sphinx which sits impossibly precariously on top of a rocky triangular peak and features an open viewing deck. The Ice Palace is a series of caverns connected by tunnels, all carved out of the solid ice of the glacier.

Coeur des Alpes Hotel
Coeur des Alpes Hotel in Zermatt

Zermatt, in the very south on the Italian border, requires two train changes, but, with typical Swiss Railways efficiency, the connections are on the same platform and very easy. The two-hour trip passes all too quickly given the spectacular scenery. In the shadow of the iconic Matterhorn, there is no more picturesque alpine town than Zermatt. At an elevation of 1,629 metres, it draws over two million visitors a year and is car free except for tiny electric shuttles to take you and your luggage to your hotel.

Amongst a hotel selection to suit any taste and budget are the 160-year-old Mont Cervin Palace located right in the bustling heart of town. However, far more intimate is the owner-operated Coeur Des Alpes reached via a private tunnel hewn through solid rock. Situated on a hillside on the edge of the small town and a pleasant five-minute walk to the heart of it, it somehow manages to successfully marry wood and glass into a modern interpretation of a traditional Swiss ski lodge. Thomas and his wife Leni are the consummate hosts and will make you feel as though you are family. Book a suite with a view of the Matterhorn and you will be reluctant to ever leave. A glass floor in the cavernous lobby looks down onto the large spa.

cog railway
The cog railway on it’s climb past the Matterhorn

The best views of the Matterhorn are from the Gornergrat from which you can see 29 peaks all over 4,000 metres. The almost 10-kilometre trip takes a half hour on Europe’s highest open-air cog railway climbing 1,469 metres through tunnels and galleries and over dramatic bridges.

Take the combination gondola and cable car to the Klein Matterhorn, the highest mountain station in the Alps at 3,883 metres. Along the way, views of the massive Matterhorn change perspective and on the viewing platform you can see as far away as Mont Blanc in France.

There’s no shortage of restaurants, but Schäferstube is a gourmands delight and consistently rated best in town. Start with a traditional Swiss Raclette accompanied by homemade Bündnerfleisch (air cured meat). Innkeeper Paul Julen has his own sheep herds so any of the lamb dishes will amaze you. There’s also a good selection of game including venison, deer, and pheasant. To wash this down, select a robust Walliser red from the extensive wine list and to finish you’ll salivate over poppy-seed, cinnamon parfait with marinated figs and red currant sauce. After this indulgence, the five-minute walk back in the crisp mountain air to the Coeur Des Alpes will be very welcome.

Glacier Express

The Glacier Express from Zermatt to St. Moritz bills itself as the slowest express train in the world and at eight hours for 170 kilometres that’s certainly justified. But this is all about the journey, not the destination, as the train passes through 91 tunnels and crosses 291 bridges and impressive viaducts, often utilizing a rack and pinion system for ascending steep grades and to control the descent of the train on the back side of those grades. Along the way, you’ll marvel at breathtaking rivers, magical castles, and deep gorges. Modern comfortable carriages with huge panoramic windows extending into the ceiling allow views of even the highest peaks. Headphones are provided with a running commentary in German or English of key sights.

Kempinski Grand Hotel
The palatial Kempinski Grand Hotel des Bains in St. Moritz.

Enjoy lunch at your own seat on board although the wine really should be upgraded when you know what Switzerland has to offer. Do bear in mind that seat reservations are required on the Glacier Express.

You’ll arrive late in the afternoon at St. Moritz, La Grande Dame of Swiss ski resorts, with a reputation for being chic, elegant, and exclusive. Located at 1,856 metres altitude, it enjoys what the locals call a ‘champagne climate’ – that is, dry, and sparkling with an average of 322 days of sun a year. The resort owes its original fame to the therapeutic springs known for over 3,000 years. Take the Corviglia Funicular and connect to the aerial tramway to the summit of Piz Nair at 3,056 metres for more of those never-tiring Swiss mountain views.

No hotel deserves the ‘Grand’ more than the 150-year-old Kempinski Grand Hotel des Bains, a five-star property in St. Moritz. It literally takes your breath away as you drive in and first spot this magnificent neo-classical palace nestled beneath the surrounding peaks. Extensive spa facilities will relax you and prepare you for a night at the on-site classic casino. You need look no further than the hotel’s own intimate Enoteca restaurant. This is fine dining at its very best with white glove service in a magnificent room with a fabulous ornamented ceiling.

From St. Moritz, in a little over three hours, the train will take you right into Zurich Airport and reluctantly your flight home.

Peter Volny, originally from Australia, has lived in seven countries including many years in Canada. He now resides in Arizona. He has visited 127 countries on all seven continents including a month spent on a Russian icebreaker in Antarctica.

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