When I say Switzerland, do notions of chocolate, cheese, alpine slopes, funiculars, cowbells, watches, trains, hiking poles, peaceful neutrality and bank accounts come to mind?
If yes, you would be right on all counts.
Yet, as I discovered during my first trip to Switzerland, it’s the abundance of culture and history, the pride of the people and endless panoramic views that will leave you smitten with this land of the Alps.
Invited as a guest of Swiss International Airlines, we took the flight from Johannesburg to Zurich in Business Class; a place of serenity, hushed tones and attentive charming care. The French champagne flowed as did the silver service and with a flat bed to settle into overnight, the flight rushed by a little quicker than I’d hoped.
On arrival we toured the airport, in under an hour, and I quickly learnt how efficient it was as a transit hub connecting South Africa with the world.
The purpose of my trip was to learn more about travel in Switzerland in the Summer time, before the thick snow falls and the peaks turn from lush green landscapes to sought after ski slopes. During that special time when hiking trails allow ascent by foot and side street cafes burst with vibrant chatter.
It’s not common knowledge that Switzerland has an idyllic climate. No excessive heat, cold or humidity. In the north moderate with cold winters and warm summers, in the south warm with palm trees lining lake sides.
With a population of about 8 million across 26 cantons speaking four main languages – German, Italian, French and Rhaeto-Romantsch. This ensures varied character and cuisine. English is widely spoken and there is a genuine desire to help and ensure your stay is good in every way. Oh, and there are no Euros here, the Swiss have held on to their Franc and wisely so.
After our welcome, we joined one of the Swiss Travel System’s Panoramic Routes passing through Chur, the oldest town in Switzerland, towards St Moritz.
I am reminded of my love for train travel, in this case much enhanced by the comfort of a first class cabin and its impressive large curved windows, which allow uninterrupted views towards the Alps. The area we traverse contains Europe’s highest density of castles; there are gorges, world famous viaducts and endless impressive tunnels. Crimson coloured train carriages carry us through quaint villages on hills and in valleys and church steeples peep out above the tree.
The beauty astounds, as do the impressive masterpieces of civil engineering.
St Moritz and its fairytale architecture live up to the dream. Seeking out the best of the three cultures that converge here, our afternoon is spent with local guide Mario; charming, friendly and very Italian, who takes us on a walking tour, my preferred way to meet a new place.
Historic buildings, high-end branded stores, hotels, restaurants, coffee and chocolate shops and charming homes. We head down to Lake St Moritz to take in the views and hear how it freezes over to become part of the winter playground that brings thousands of tourists here annually. Easy to understand why so many famous guests had frequented this place over the years, among them Alfred Hitchcock, Brigitte Bardot, Charlie Chaplin, Henry Ford, Greta Garbo.
The Swiss adage build high for overview and maximum sunshine is adhered to throughout. This allows for the best vantage point from which to enjoy what the Swiss call magic hour, that idyllic time at dusk. That night we dined at a restaurant positioned 2 456m above sea level, the temperature drops with the climb and settle at -2C on the wooden deck, with sprinklings of snow underfoot.
It’s pure perfection.
We visit the Diavolezza or ‘Beautiful She Devil’, one of the most popular skiing destinations in the area at a height of 3 000m. With its eight peaks, ice-capped ridges and perfect mountain scenery set to cast a spell over all who visit.
We took the bright yellow gondola to the top where the impressive views draw attention to the Pers and Morteratsch Glaciers, as well as Piz Bernina, which peaks at 4 049m, the highest mountain in the Eastern Alps! The clouds are different here. The pools of water a metallic teal that shimmers in the chilly light.
From here more train love and a bus trip through Italy, with a stop for real pizza and cappuccinos, would bring us to Bellinzona in the Ticino region in the South of Switzerland, where I was to spend two nights. There’s a different atmosphere here, a more relaxed appeal, yet Swiss efficiency is not compromised.
We take a full day to explore nearby Locarno on foot; cobblestoned roads, side streets with bicycles casually leaning against ancient walls, art and heritage centers, all gathered around the old square with Lake Maggiore nearby. A funicular takes us to Sacro Monte Madonna del Sussa, which we explore before the next stretch by cable car to Cardada and ski lift to the very summit. We lunch outside at a traditional polenta restaurant, views towards the lake and fluffy cows bringing the song of cowbells to the easy wind.
Heading back we get lost in the woods, somewhat intentionally taking the unbeaten path into the trees. Wanting to feel some of the magic before we return to the cable car, the village below and we spend an afternoon of coffee drinking and casual chats next to Lake Maggiore in nearby Ascona.
The last day has us travel by Wilhelm Tell Express and a 100-years old paddle steamer across Lake Lucerne, simultaneously enjoying the views and lunch over a glass of Prosecco. What luxury to travel this way. In the city we take in the historic Chapel Bridge and Watertower, street art and signs of the annual carnival. I love how the oldest church is allowed to chime before the rest. We drink pure water from a fountain, try the local nut cake or Bündner Nusstorte and visit the Jesuit Church. There’s a craft brewery too, next to the lake where swans pass by, oblivious to the bustle.
I don’t want to leave, but perfectly to schedule; we take the short commute to Zurich Airport and ready for our flight home. But not before stocking up on Swiss Chocolate.
Back on African soil I count the modes of transport we had enjoyed in Switzerland - plane, train, bus, car, funicular, cable car, ski lift and much by foot. Completely captivated by this magnificent piece of Europe, its efficiency and style, I dream of a return to add bicycle and skies to the mix. And can’t recommend enough, that you do the same.
I was invited by Swiss Airlines and hosted by Switzerland Tourism, spending one night at the iconic Schweizenhof Hotel in St Moritz and two at the Hotel and Spa Internationale in Bellinzona.
Consider booking Swiss Airlines when travelling to and through Europe. There are no transit visa implications for South Africans.
Its worth buying a SWISS Pass (www.swiss-pass.ch) suited to the number of days that you will be in Switzerland. There are flexible options available that include the panoramic routes, public transport in 75+ cities and towns, entrance to over 480 museums and additional discounts - certainly the best value.