Look past the silk-smooth chocolate, cuckoo clocks and yodelling – contemporary Switzerland, land of four languages, is all about epic journeys and sublime experiences.
The perfect antidote to rural beauty is a surprise set of cities: capital Bern with its medieval old town and world-class modern art, deeply Germanic Basel and its bold architecture, shopping-chic Geneva astraddle Europe’s largest lake, tycoon-magnet Zug and uber-cool Zürich with its rooftop bars and atypical Swiss street grit. Beard cutting or stone throwing, Paul Klee art or hip club gig: what a euphoric journey indeed.
Why I Love Switzerland
By Nicola Williams, Author
Lake Geneva's southern shore has been home for a decade and it still tickles me pink that journeys by train or plane begin with a soul-stirring 20-minute boat ride across the water, sometimes aboard a nippy little 'commuter' boat at dawn, sometimes on one of the magnificent belle époque steamers that I often see twinkling after dark from my kitchen window. Lakes, mountains, urban chic: Switzerland delivers every weekend with yet another uplifting activity and, being someone who'd rather be outside than in (call me and my kids ski fiends, paddle-board mad, hiking kings and queens), it suits me down to the ground.
Switzerland's hallucinatory landscapes demand immediate action – grab boots, leap on board, toot bike bell and let spirits rip. Skiing and snowboarding in Graubünden, Bernese Oberland and Central Switzerland are winter choices. When pastures turn green, hiking and biking trails abound in glacier-encrusted mountain areas and lower down along lost valleys, glittering lakeshores and pea-green vineyards. View the natural grandeur from a hot-air balloon or parachute, or afloat a white-water raft. Then there's those must-do-before-death moments like encountering Eiger's chiselled north face up close or reaching crevassed ice on Jungfraujoch (3454m). Most extraordinary of all, you don’t need to be a mountaineer to do it.
Variety is the spice of rural life in this rich, earthy land where Alpine tradition is rooted in the agricultural calendar and soaring mountains are as common as muck. Travels are mapped by villages with timber granaries built on stilts to keep the rats out and chalet farmsteads brightened with red geranium blossoms. Ancient markets, folkloric fairs, flag waving and alp horn concerts engrave the passing of seasons in every soul. And then there's the food: a hearty and flavoursome, gastronomic celebration of gooey cheese desperate to be dipped in, along with velvety chocolate, autumnal game and air-dried meats.
Switzerland is a harmonious tableau of beautiful images, a slideshow of epic proportions that is easy to step into, and travellers have been seduced ever since the days of the Grand Tour and Alpinism's Golden Age in the 19th century, and the birth of winter tourism in the Alps in the 1930s. From the intoxicating chink of Verbier glitterati hobnobbing over Champagne to the reassuring bell jangle of silky black Val d'Hérens cattle being mucked out in the Valais, Switzerland mixes rural and urban with astonishing ease, grace and precision. Ride a little red train between peak and pine, soak in mountain spa waters, snowshoe to your igloo or scamper across medieval bridges and know that this small landlocked country will be picture perfect, with not a hair out of place.