It’s one of India’s favourite foreign destinations and yet not explored quite enough. TD goes off the beaten track in the Swiss Alps to find that even the lesser-known spots are stunningly beautiful, even as they are beautifully safe, and safely sanitised!
Switzerland has been on the wish list of Indian travellers for decades, ever since the first chiffon-clad Hindi cinema heroine minced her way across an Alpine meadow. Most Indians have been brought up on this saccharine sweet diet of celluloid Switzerland, served up by the late Yash Chopra, K-Jo, and their ilk, and places such as Interlaken, Mt Titlis, Jungfrau, and Geneva, are almost more familiar to us than our own homegrown hill stations. And then there’s Davos, that’s a household name since it’s become a hub for global political and corporate leaders to hobnob thanks to the World Economic Forum. And Basel, known for the world’s most influential art fair and its watch and jewellery exposition that goes back more than a century, attracts aficionados and businessmen alike.
But there’s a whole lot more to this beautiful country than this handful of places, as I have discovered over several journeys around Switzerland. Here are some epic experiences I selected from my travel chronicles to get you started on a Swiss exploration…
It’s Lucerne, and I’m in love
This little town on the River Reuss is connected by rail to all major cities in Switzerland and by boat to many scenic locations. I’m including it in the off-the-beaten-track itinerary as it’s a great central point for a lot of day trips, and also has a treasure trove of unique sites that aren’t on the average blink-and-you-miss-it package tours. While the Chapel Bridge (the oldest covered bridge in Europe that dates back to AD 1333 and has over a hundred 17th century paintings within its rafters) across the river, and the Lion Monument have been immortalised in many a Hindi movie are its most famous landmarks, I think you’d enjoy walking around the cobbled streets of Aldstadt, the Old Town.
I found intricate murals on buildings depicting everything from coats of arms and designs to daily life in medieval times. The river is full of graceful swans that the guide on my walking tour told me were a gift to the city by French king Louis the XIV as gratitude for his Swiss guards. There’s a cute tourist train that takes people around this area too. The railway station and the transport museum are must-dos, as is a meal in one of the riverside cafes. And, if you are the artistic sort, the Rosengart Collection Museum on Pilatusstrasse has about 50 original Picassos as well as paintings by Chagall, Monet, and Matisse that are sure to take your breath away.
Stay: Loads of big-ticket brands to choose from, but the family-run Hotel Schweizerhof Luzern offers local charm and heritage oomph.
Love: The Hof Church with its Gothic twin towers belongs to a Benedictine monastery older than the city itself. The church as it stands today was built in the 17th century using a mix of Renaissance and Baroque elements. A visually impaired girl sitting alone here taught me how to make music using the rims of wine glasses filled with varying amounts of water. The eerie-ethereal sound resonated and rose to the top of the nearly empty church, adding a touch of mystique to my time in this town.
Do: Taking the luxe boat across Lake Lucerne to Alpnachstad and, from there, inching up the 48-degree incline in the tomato-red bogies of the world’s steepest cogwheel railway to the top of Mt Pilatus is something you won’t forget in a hurry. The fun-filled picnic spot at 7,000 feet above sea level has delicious food, cheery music played by Alpine horns and accordions, and friendly blackbirds that will delight you with their loop-the-loops.
Zermatt: A gorgeous gateway to mountains and glaciers
A train journey through the picture-perfect Swiss countryside passing darling little stations (one was even called St Niklaus which reminded me of St Nicholas or Santa Claus!) is a lovely way to travel. In this country, more than most places in the world, the adage ‘the journey IS the destination’ is most applicable, as the trains are built for comfort and soaking in the sights to the max.
Once you arrive in the idyllic village of Zermatt, you’ll feel the crisp mountain air engulf you and make you feel extra upbeat. It’s a car-free place so you can walk around or use an e-taxi. The magnificent mountain called the Matterhorn, with its mysterious plume, dominates the skyline everywhere you go. You can either go to Sunnegga Viewpoint to see it better, go up the Rothorn for an even better view, or hike to Stellisee on the Five Lakes Trail to get a scenic shot. There’s even a Matterhorn Museum, if you’re interested! This is a hikers’ paradise, and you have many fantastic, clearly marked trails to pick from, at varying levels of expertise, as well as the country’s highest sledging slope nearby.
Eat: The innovative Aroleid Restaurant has a Michelin Bib Gourmand, superb coffee from their own roastery, and plans to reopen this winter. Vegistube in Hotel Pollux is highly recommended for great vegetarian and vegan options.
Stay: The Omnia is a contemporary take on a classic mountain lodge and rated the best of many great hotels in Zermatt. Else, you could spend a night or two in Europe’s highest-altitude hotel, the 3100 Kulmhotel Gornergrat.
Love: In fact, going up to Gornergrat is the best experience from Zermatt. Take the world’s first fully electrified cogwheel railway (and Europe’s highest open-air one), equipped with a modern regenerative braking system that generates electricity on the descent, saving energy. Sit on the right side while going up for the best sights. At 3089 metres, Gornergrat gives you spectacular views of the Matterhorn and Gorner, the second largest glacier in Switzerland. Also look out for Dufourspitze, the highest peak in the country.
Do: What else should you do at the country’s highest ski resort, but strap on a pair of skis?! At the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise, you can ski all year round. Take the cable car to the highest station in Europe (3,883 metres), which is more than Jungfraujoch, much advertised as the ‘Top of Europe’ (3,566 metres) to see the south face of the Matterhorn apres ski.
A historic canton called Ticino
I disembarked from the famous Wilhelm Tell Express — a boat cruise from Lucerne that has everything from a fabulous meat and cheese platter to authentic Swiss yodellers — at Flüelen to board the famous Pan Gottardo Observation Car on one of most panoramic and historic rides to reach Lugano in Ticino, the southernmost Canton of Switzerland. This car’s 26 rotating seats allow an infinitely adjustable range of positions during the journey and let you see the route from all-new angles, changing direction at the press of a button. The significance of the journey on the 125-year-old Gotthard line, a key transit route which links northern and southern Europe and boasts an approximately 15 kms long summit tunnel.
Ticino is influenced by its proximity to Italy and so all the ‘strasses’ give way to ‘piazzas’, and the vibe is warmer and more laidback than in the German-influenced regions. Explore Lugano and Locarno (where the international film festival is held). And if you want to get away from the glamour for a bit, take the cableway to the top of Cardada and then the chairlift to Cimetta. There’s a charming peace up here — you can see it in the eyes of kindly old monks, hear it in the lowing of furry brown Swiss cows, feel it rise from the breath-taking valley views, and soar with the colourful parasails in the sky as you leisurely stroll down the grassy slopes back to Cardada.
Eat: I had the most amazing traditional dinner in a cavern. You have to try one of these ‘grotto’ restaurants inside cool stone cellars which used to be where cheese, wine and meat was stored in the days before refrigerators came to Ticino. The Grotto del Cavicc in Collina d’Oro is where writer Herman Hesse ate often, while extolling the virtues of Ticino. Sip wine from traditional striped cups as you sit on the lovely terrace on a warm day. Try the local walnut liqueur or walnut gelato for dessert.
Stay: Go for boutique luxury with marble bathrooms and tennis courts, with a view of Lake Maggiore in Locarno at the Villa Orselina.
Love: The three castles in Bellinzona — Castelgrande, Montebello and Sasso Corbaro – are Roman fortifications that date back to medieval times. A UNESCO World Heritage Site that is well preserved and also serves as a great event venue, with its own castle-made Merlot served under a sprawling tree on its manicured lawns and the Grotto San Michele inside.
Do: Visit the Verzasca Valley for a dip in the cold, glacier-fed river. Bungee off the Verzasca Dam, a 220-metre jump that was immortalised in the Bond film Golden Eye. Stop by picturesque Morcote, a former fishing village, with the waters of the lake lapping at the steps of ornate buildings that the Dukes of Milan once frequented in their dealings with Switzerland.
The lovely vineyards of Visp
The canton of Valais is popularly called the ‘sun terrace of Switzerland’. Visp is an elegant little town at the foot of Europe’s highest vineyards. As you walk through the cobblestone streets and flower-lined windows, the courtyards seem to echo whispers of the 15th century Valais witch trials. But from the darkness of those medieval times also come the storied wine cellars, passed down in the same family for several generations.
Eat: I’m sure you will enjoy the rustic gardens and the hearty potato-and-cheese raclette in many of the little eateries here. For something fancier, visit the Hotel-Restaurant Eyholz, which has a great terrace for al fresco meals over local wine.
Stay: The uber modern Baxter Hotel is a nice counterpoint to the old town. A great location opposite the trains station in the city centre gives you access to everything Visp.
Love: Attend a lip-smacking wine and cheese tasting in one of their ancient cellars like I did. Some excellent wines, and the atmosphere amid the antique barrels is truly memorable.
Do: You can go to the actual vineyards and wineries to see where the wine you just tasted comes from. No wonder wine tours are the biggest draw here, apart from the alpine trails that can be explored on foot or mountain bikes. As if real mountains aren’t enough, they also have the Vertic-Halle Baltschieder climbing centre with 770 sq metres of walls to explore! In nearby Brig, you can see the famous Simplon Pass and the rail tunnel beneath, which connects this region of Switzerland with Piedmont in Italy.
The sparkling ski town of St Moritz
One of the most glamourous destinations in the world, St Moritz is known as a summer spa town thanks to mineral springs discovered 3,000 years ago, its sensational ski slopes (it’s the oldest ski town in the world), and its glorious weather, where even winter boasts 300 sunny days! The perfect location for the start of Alpine winter tourism in 1864, and two-time host of the Winter Olympics, it’s definitely got a lot going for it.
Stay: Badrutt’s Palace Hotel has so much history that it’s almost like staying in a time capsule! Anyone who’s anyone visiting St Moritz (and that would include the world’s top celebrities) has been at the beautiful Badrutt, with its great lake-facing location. If you’re there to ski, ski, ski, then the Nira Alpina is the cosy ski-in ski-out resort to pick, with a good restaurant and a lively apres-ski bar.
Love: The horse-drawn carriage rides around the lake in winter are what romantic dreams are made of. You get tucked in under a blanket and experience the winter wonderland of this picture postcard town and its frozen-over lake. And a must-stop is the Läderach chocolaterie, which has a mind-blowing variety of some of the best chocolate, especially the freshly made ones in big, chunky slabs. You’ll never buy mass-market chocolate again!
Go: Learn the game of Curling on an ice rink. Try the sport of bobsleighing that was invented in St Moritz itself on their natural ice Olympic run, which was created in 1904. It’s 1722 metres long but takes just 75 seconds to cover! From the Cresta Run to tobogganing slopes at Muottas Muragl. From ice-skating on the lake to heli-skiing to winter polo to ice climbing and snowshoe trekking. From luxurious vintage cars to the death-defying Bernina Gran Turismo hill-climbing race. There’s a lot of adrenaline-pumping action to be had here. After which you can’t go wrong with gathering around a roaring fireplace with some delicious Swiss hot chocolate. Cliched, but perfect nevertheless!