#17 Switzerland: Land of lakes and mountains

“One thing to remember on the Eiger, never look up, or you may need a plastic surgeon.”

Don Whillans, climber and mountaineer

Few countries can be as purely picturesque as Switzerland. Its villages and small towns are cute, clean and quaint; its countryside is dramatically pretty. Years ago I made several work trips to IMD, the international business school in Lausanne, each time my jaw dropping at its astonishing lakeside location, with mountains sketched onto the canvas of sky behind. One time my visit coincided with a huge international motor show. With hotel rooms fully occupied by car enthusiasts, I found myself staying across the lake in the appealing French town of Evian-les-Bains: my morning ‘commutes’ across Lake Leman by ferry were captivating.

My most recent visit to Switzerland was a winter holiday to Grindelwald in the Jungfrau region of the Bernese Alps. While my fiancé and his son hurtled eagerly down the slopes on snowboards, I undertook some gentler cross-country skiing, some stunning mountain hikes and a general exploration of the region. Wandering up to the stunning viewpoint crowning the end of the Mannlichen Royal Walk, I was surrounded by pristine snow, a beguiling white in bright contrast with the dazzling blue sky above. By the time I reached the viewpoint, I was gasping in the cold, fragile air, pure and crisp as fresh ice in a cocktail glass. The foreboding peaks of the Eiger, the Mönch and the Jungfrau hovered over the snow-cushioned slopes and sheltered valleys. With eyes stretching to take in the jagged mountain vista, I found myself looking down on downy pillows of cloud. The silence was so complete it pressed on my ear drums. I savoured the tranquillity until the next couple of tourists lumbered up to the peak and then went down and took the cable car back to the other side of the valley, via Holenstein. Strung giddily above the slopes, the cars floated silently down over clumps of spiky firs and swirling waves of ski tracks carving intricate patterns across the open sweeps of snow.

Back in Grindelwald, I took yet another cable car up to First station. True to form, I found myself scrambling for the last returning car, the sun dropping swiftly behind the mountain crags and casting an uneven shadow across the pistes. My slightly panicked rush was well worth it for the Tissot cliff walk at First, unfeasibly constructed around the edge of a vertical rock face. Walking over the metal mesh walkway was incredible and slightly adrenaline-inducing, especially the swinging suspension bridge. At the end of a hanging passageway I gasped as I reached a lookout at dead end with a glass panel in front and below. I dangled over a steep crevassed drop, with proudly dark trees huddled below the tree line, over-shadowed by unfeasibly steep rock faces.

Heading down into the valley for a day, we stared upwards at the mountains’ awe-inspiring outlines and down into their watery reflections in the flat mirror of Lake Thun. We took in the views from the turreted castle of Thun, built in the late 12th century by Duke Berthold V of Zähringen, and ate lunch and creamy gelato along the banks of the river feeding into Lake Thun while drinking in the glorious backdrop of sun-sparked snowy mountain peaks. We marvelled at the ibex in Interlaken’s wildlife park, the huge curved horns of the males patterned in twists like an old-fashioned barley sugar stick. Driving back up to our mountain retreat, we passed sweet chalets straight out of Heidi, with sloping roofs, wooden slatted balconies and combs of icicles hanging from their roofs.

The views everywhere were magnificent and soul soothing, whether swooshing effortfully along the cross-country skiing grooves, hiking along the beautiful Grütschalp to Mürren mountain trail, pure snow squeaking under my soles, or gliding up and down slopes on cable cars, gondolas and cog railways. With such stunning scenery, Switzerland is a gorgeous destination in both winter and summer. It’s also the home of delicious chocolate, which for me personally adds to its appeal. One of the few downsides is that it’s eye-wateringly expensive, but you certainly get some stunning views and some mountains for your money!

HIGHLIGHTS

Natural highlights – the mountains!

Culinary highlights – chocolate, obviosuly. And cheese fondue. We tried this bubbling delicacy at Barry’s Restaurant in Grindelwald and the Eden Beach Bar on the edge of Lake Thun

Cultural highlights – we didn’t have time to go to it, but the Zentrum Paul Klee in Basel looks interesting and is housed in an architecturally striking building. The Sphinx Observatory perched on a precipice at the so-called ‘Top of Europe’ at Jungfraujoch (3454m) sounds fascinating, but it is an expensive place to get to, so if you plan to go, be prepared to shell out!

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