Look beyond the chocolate, cuckoo clocks and yodelling – contemporary Switzerland, land of four languages, is all about once-in-a-lifetime journeys, heart-racing Alpine pursuits and urban culture.
Switzerland's ravishing 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 lake shores and pea-green vineyards. View the grandeur from a hot-air balloon or parachute, or afloat a white-water raft. Then there's those must-do-before-death experiences like encountering Eiger's chiselled north face up close or reaching crevassed ice on Jungfraujoch. Most extraordinary of all, you don’t need to be a mountaineer to do it.
The perfect antidote to rural beauty is Switzerland's urban edge: capital Bern with its medieval old town and world-class modern art, deeply Germanic Basel and its bold architecture, chic Geneva astraddle Europe’s largest lake, party-loving Lausanne, tycoon magnet Zug and uber-cool Zürich with its riverside bars, reborn industrial west district and atypical street grit. Castles and craft beer, gigs and new-wave restaurants – you’ll find the lot in Swiss cities. And never has the urban been so close to the outdoors: within minutes you can reach nearby peaks, chill at waterfront bars with Alpine views, or enjoy invigorating swims in the Rhine, Aare and Limmat.
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 a dime a dozen. 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.
Ever innovative, the Swiss have always embraced the new and the experimental. Capturing the zeitgeist up and down the country are cultural venues, attention-grabbing architecture and avant-garde galleries. Bern's wavy Zentrum Paul Klee bearing architect Renzo Piano’s hallmark, Basel's Frank Gehry–designed Vitra Design Museum and astounding Fondation Beyeler, Lugano's Mario Botta–splashed centre and state-of-the-art MASI gallery, and Geneva's thought-provoking Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain in a revamped 1950s factory are just the tip of the cultural iceberg. Even in back-of-beyond corners of the Alps you'll encounter unexpected nods to modern aesthetics, contemporary art and fresh-faced design.
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If the greatest masterpieces on earth are wrought for the glory of God, St Gallen ’s Stiftsbibliothek (Abbey Library), is like a living prayer. Religious or not, you can’t help but look up to the heavens and fall silent as you step across its creaking wood floor, breathe in the scent of 1000 years of parchment, ink, patience and piety, and cast a careful eye across its stucco-encrusted ceiling, biblical frescoes, playful putti (cherub-like figures), magnificent globe and shelves lined with 170,000 beautiful leather-bound books. Some of the world’s most precious and elaborate medieval manuscripts are hidden here, occasionally dusted off for exhibitions for all to admire. Once the beating heart of one of Europe’s finest Benedictine monasteries, the library gave St Gallen a solid foot up the celestial ladder in the Middle Ages. Today, this wondrous space forms the centerpiece of the Unesco World Heritage Stiftsbezirk (Abbey District). If you make the pilgrimage to just one abbey in Switzerland, this really should be it. The Abbey of St Gall complex sits in the centre of the city of St Gallen © Didier Marti / Getty Images History of Stiftsbibliothek St Gallen Local lore has it that St Gallen began with a bush, a bear and an Irish monk who should have watched where he was going. In AD 612, as the tale goes, itinerant monk St Gall (Gallus), one of the twelve companions of Saint Columbanus, was on a mission from Ireland to the continent. He fell into a briar (bush) and considered the stumble a calling from God. After a fortuitous encounter with a bear, in which he persuaded it to bring him a log, take some bread in return and leave him in peace, he used the log to begin building the simple hermitage that would one day evolve into St Gallen’s cathedral. Whether or not you believe the bit about the briar and the bear, St Gall was instrumental in sewing the seeds of what would blossom into one of the world’s greatest Benedictine abbeys, founded by Abbot Otmar in 747 AD. The city of St Gallen sprang up around the abbey and developed into one of Europe’s most important intellectual and religious centres. In the Middle Ages, monks flocked here from afar to pray, read, study scriptures and devote years to copying and illustrating manuscripts; a painstaking, solitary act that required a patient hand and a peaceful heart. Arts, letters and sciences flourished here and the library grew to impressive proportions, with its manuscripts inspiring accomplished artists and leading literary scholars: from Notker Balbulus to Ekkehart IV. The abbey survived the threats and fires that ravaged the town over the centuries, and the turbulent times of the Reformation. Based on plans by star architect of the baroque age, Peter Thumb of Vorarlberg, the new abbey was built in the mid 18th century, just before the abbey lands were secularised and the abbey itself dissolved in 1805. The former abbey church became a cathedral in 1848, and the whole site, including the Stiftsbibliothek, was granted Unesco World Heritage status in 1983. Exterior of the Abbey of St Gall © Franck Decourt / Getty Images Architecture of Stiftsbibliothek St Gallen A master of the exuberant rococo style, Peter Thumb of Vorarlberg didn’t do things by halves. Completed just before his death in 1767, the library was his parting gift to the world and magnum opus: a swirling confection of curling stucco and frescoes depicting the early church councils. The plump putti (cherub-like figures) in the window niches embody professions – poet and doctor, botanist and carpenter, musician and painter, astronomer and architect. A balcony unfurls gracefully along the upper level, with 34 windows allowing a painterly light to stream in even on overcast days. No expense was spared on the materials, with bookshelves and bookcases carved out of exquisite walnut and cherry wood. Above the entrance, a pair of gilded cherubs hold up a sign saying psyché iatreio, the Greek for “sanctuary of the soul” or “soul pharmacy”. Ancient manuscripts and muraled ceilings await visitors in the Stiftsbibliothek © De Agostini / Getty Images Treasures of Stiftsbibliothek St Gallen Books & manuscripts Only 30,000 of the total collection of 170,000 volumes are in the library at any one time, arranged into special exhibitions. Among these are 1650 incunabula (books printed before 1501). Of the library's 2100 precious manuscripts – some of which are true works of art and remarkably well preserved – just a handful are on display. The oldest manuscript, dating to 760, was penned by the monk Winithar, who complained about not having sufficient parchment. Among its other literary treasures are the 9th-century Cod Sang 555, the earliest portrait of St Columba, a version of The Rule of St Benedict, the cornerstone of medieval monastic life, and Manuscript B of the Nibelungenlied (The Song of the Nibelungs), an epic poem written around 1200. St Gallen globe Igniting the adventurous spirit in any born traveler, the library’s earth and celestial globe is a beauty, more than two metres high, replete with naturalistic detail and still incomplete as some countries were yet to be discovered. The 16th-century original was stolen more than 400 years ago, so what you see now is a very convincing replica. Vaulted cellar For more insight into St Gall and his life and work, delve into the vaulted cellar. This houses the Lapidarium, which showcases a collection of Carolingian, Ottonian and Gothic sculpture from the former church on the site. There's also some interesting background, albeit mostly in German, about the art of illustration. The standout is the late 9th-century Evangelium Longum, an illuminated manuscript with an intricately carved ivory cover bearing the hallmark of the monk and artist Tuotilo. Egyptian mummy Hailing from the Deir el-Bahri Temple Complex, Shepenese, the library’s ancient Egyptian mummy, dates to 700 BC and was given as a gift to the mayor of St Gallen in 1820, together with two wooden sarcophagi. Shepenese was the daughter of a priest and lived at the start of the Saite Dynasty (672 to 525 BC). Dom St Gallen Taking the stylistic leap from baroque to classicism, St Gallen's twin-towered, mid-18th-century cathedral is only slightly less ornate than the world-famous library nearby. A riot of mint-green stucco and rose marble, the cathedral dances with dark, stormy frescos and cherubs and saints gazing down from heavenly clouds. The cupola (ceiling dome) shows a vision of paradise with the Holy Trinity at the centre. To experience the cathedral at its uplifting best, visit during one of the Dommusik concerts. The interior of the St Gallen Cathedral © g215 / Shutterstock Exploring St Gallen While you’re in St Gallen, factor in time for a stroll around the Altstadt (Old Town), where many houses are embellished with Erker (oriel bay windows), especially around Gallusplatz, Spisergasse, Schmiedgasse and Kugelgasse. Locals have totted them all up and reckon there are 111. Some bear the most extraordinary timber sculptures – a reflection of the wealth of their one-time owners, mostly textile barons. Need to know Multilingual audio guides are available at the abbey library and exhibition space counters, as are felt slippers, which are obligatory to protect the parquet floor. Photography is strictly forbidden (even without flash). Included in the cost of the abbey ticket, public 45-minute guided tours in German depart at 2pm daily; no booking is required.
This is the big one. At 3454m above sea level, Jungfraujoch is Europe’s highest train station: a once-in-a-lifetime trip, with views of the deeply crevassed Aletsch Glacier and a never-ending ripple of sky-high Alpine peaks to make you gasp out loud. A little underwhelmingly for train enthusiasts, the station itself is actually located inside the mountain, in a tunnel of sorts. But (but!) the ride to reach it passes some magnificent mountain scenery, with passengers glued to the window as the tracks curl past spruce forests and eyrie-like villages, meadows sprinkled with a confetti of wildflowers, and mountains that glow pearl white in winter like a scene from a snowglobe. The higher you go, the more dramatic the journey gets, shouldering up to glinting glaciers and the legendary triple act of Eiger (3970m), Mönch (4107m) and Jungfrau (4158m). Upon completing the journey, passengers disembark to explore the snowy surrounds. We won’t lie – Jungfraujoch is no secret and it gets swamped in high season, but with some cunning planning you can give the madding crowds the slip. Stay overnight at the Mönchsjochhütte, stomp through fresh powder snow in quiet exhilaration, or take the first train to see sunrise pinken the peaks one by one, and you too will feel the magic. A view of the Jungfraujoch station and the Jungfraufirn glacier © C.E. Seo / Getty Images History of Jungfraujoch Only the Swiss had the guts more than a century ago to think you could blaze right through rock and ice and bore through the heart of Eiger to a glaciated peak 3454m high. A masterpiece of engineering in the truest sense, the railway has known few rivals since it launched on 1 August 1912, taking some 3000 workers 16 years to complete. If the journey seems audacious now, just think of how it seemed back then. Many railway pioneers had flocked to the region and proposed ways to connect the highest peaks. But it was Adolf Guyer-Zeller who came up with the masterplan for the electrically operated cog railway, factoring in several stops en route to let passengers enjoy the views. The work on the railway began in earnest in 1896 and was carried out without machinery – just shovels, pickaxes and a hell of a lot of hard graft. The construction was not without its hitches, among them the sudden death of Adolf Guyer-Zeller in 1899, and the accidental explosion of 30 tons of dynamite in 1908. But these setbacks didn’t stop Adolf’s dream from becoming a reality. The Ice Palace at Jungfraujoch © FABRICE COFFRINI / Getty Images What to do at Jungfraujoch Sphinx observation deck The icy wilderness of swirling glaciers and 4000m peaks that unfolds up top is beautiful beyond belief. Sidling up to the crag-perching Sphinx, one of the world’s highest astronomical observatories, Jungfraujoch’s observation deck commands grandstand views of the moraine-streaked, 23km-long tongue of the Aletsch Glacier, the longest glacier in the Alps and a Unesco World Heritage Site. The views across a sea of shimmering white peaks stretch as far as the Black Forest in Germany on cloudless days. Snow Fun Park Even when there’s dazzling sunshine at lower elevations, there is guaranteed snow up at Jungfraujoch. The Snow Fun Park ramps up the adventure. Here you can whizz across the frozen plateau on a flying fox (zip line), dash downhill on a sled or snow tube, or pound the powder with some gentle skiing or boarding (day passes available). Ice Palace Tunnels of ice polished as smooth as cut glass lead through the Ice Palace at Jungfraujoch, which offers a frosty reception at -3°C. Mountain guides wielding saws and pick-axes carved the chambers out of solid ice in the 1930s. Now they are adorned with frozen sculptures of bears, ibexes and eagles. Aletsch Glacier Jungfraujoch commands a phenomenal view of the largest glacier in the Alps: the 23km Aletsch Glacier, which blazes a trail through peaks hovering around the 4000m mark. The glacier is the showpiece of the Swiss Alps Jungfrau-Aletsch Unesco World Heritage Site. From late June to early October, Grindelwald Sports offers two-day hikes across the glacier, led by experienced mountain guides. Visitors admire the view from Jungfraujoch © Dini Rashidi / EyeEm / Getty Images Make it happen When to go Going early, going late or going out of season is the trick to avoiding the crush at Jungfraujoch. It’s well worth getting one of the first or last trains to see the peak when it’s a shade more peaceful. Staying the night at Mönchsjochhütte lets you experience Jungfraujoch when the crowds have subsided. Good weather is essential for the journey; check the website for current conditions. Don’t forget to take warm clothing, sunglasses and sunscreen, as there’s snow and glare up here all year. The journey to Jungfraujoch The recent arrival of the tri-cable Eiger Express gondola, linking Grindelwald to Eiger Glacier station in 15 minutes, has seriously slashed journey times to Europe’s highest station. The gondola swings so close to Eiger’s ferocious north face that it feels as though you’ll slam into it. Trains from Interlaken Ost follow two different routes to Jungfraujoch: one via Lauterbrunnen, Wengen and Kleine Scheidegg (2¼ hours), the other via Grindelwald with the Eiger Express (1½ hours). From late May to October, the first train from Interlaken to Jungfraujoch departs at 6.35am, and the latest train leaving Jungfrau is 5.47pm. Seats can be reserved for a nominal extra charge. The (seemingly precariously placed) Monchsjochhutte is a firm favourite with climbers, skiers and those who enjoy great mountain vistas © Victor FlowerFly / Shutterstock Where to stay & eat The crowds fade and the mountains rear up around you in all their frozen wonder when you hike through the snow to Mönchsjochhütte, 2.2km east of Jungfraujoch (around 45 minutes on foot). Perched at a giddy 3650m above sea level and open from mid-March to mid-October, this is Switzerland’s highest serviced mountain hut and a firm favourite among hardcore rock climbers, glacier hikers and ski tourers, not to mention mere mortals just up here for the view. The deal is simple: you’ll sleep in a basic dorm, wash in meltwater and eat hearty mountain meals. The clatter of karabiners (climbing hooks) can be heard at ungodly hours (light sleepers will want earplugs) and breakfast is served from 2am to 7.30am, which is just as well because you really wouldn’t want to miss this sunrise… Money saving passes Get yourself a Jungfrau Travel Pass for speedy access to the mountains via a brilliant network of trains, funiculars and cable cars. Available for three to eight days, the pass offers unlimited travel on mountain railways in the region, plus discounts on tickets to Jungfraujoch. From mid-April to late November, the three- to eight-day Top of Europe Pass covers the whole shebang: unlimited transport within the region and as many journeys as you like to Jungfraujoch and back. Kids pay just a fraction of the adult price.
When an environmentally on-the-ball land like Switzerland has just one national park, you can bet it’s a good one. Huddled away in the far southeast of the country, where the snow-frosted Swiss Alps muscle their way into Italy, this 172-sq-km park is a nature-gone-wild spectacle of high moors, forests, wildflower-freckled pastures, waterfalls, jewel-colored lakes and sky-high peaks that looks as though it has been shaped by God’s own fair hand. Here wildlife rules and human intervention is kept to a conservation-driven minimum. And long may it stay that way, say park authorities. Amen. Come to hike along ridges where it is silent but for the sound of your own heartbeat and the piercing whistle of a golden eagle or roar of a stag, hole up in a log cabin to see the first sun creep over the summits, and explore a landscape so pristine, ancient and unaltered that dinosaur tracks are still regularly found here. Conservation in the Swiss National Park The Swiss have always been environmentally ahead of the game and here’s the proof–this was the first national park to be established in the Alps on August 1, 1914. More than 100 years later, the park remains true to its original conservation ethos. “Take only photographs, leave only footprints” is the spirit that still underpins the park to this day. "Little has changed over the course of a century and I hope we will be able to say the same in another hundred years' time," the park's communications director Hans Lozza confesses. "Our three aims are to protect, research and inform. Since the park was founded, no trees have been felled, no meadows cut, no animals hunted. This is what nature left to its own devices looks like." Swiss National Park near Zernez, Switzerland © Michal Stipek / Getty Best hikes in the Swiss National Park The only way to truly see this remote, wildly mountainous national park is to slap on hiking boots and hit the trails that thread deep into its heart. The hiking season goes with the snow, so roughly from mid-June to mid-October. Lakes of Macun This high-alpine plateau shimmers with 23 lakes of sapphire, azure and turquoise blue. If you’re surefooted and up for a challenge, the 21km (13 mile), eight-hour return hike from Zernez is extraordinary, with views of the snow-capped Bernese, Silvretta and Ortler Alps. Munt la Schera An easy-going 4½-hour, 13km (8 mile) hike from Buffalora via this summit takes you through a one-of-a-kind steppe landscape. Grazing the border to Italy, you are granted views deep into the neighboring Stelvio National Park. Cyclamens of every color bloom here in early summer. Val Mingèr Switzerland's last native bear was shot in this valley in 1904, a decade before the park was founded. The two-hour, 5.5km (3.4 mile) uphill hike from Pradatsch to Sur il Foss takes in weirdly eroded rock formations and you might well spot chamois and deer. Alp Trupchun Flat, easy-going and suitable for families, the three-hour, 9.5km (5.9 mile) trek from S-chanf to Alp Trupchun provides a good overview to the park. The stag rutting in fall is at its most spectacular here. Val Cluozza Marmots, chamois, deer, golden eagles and even ibex can be spotted in the gloriously unspoilt valley, reached via a 3½-hour, 8km (5 mile) uphill ramble through larch and pine woods Zernez. To up the challenge, tag on a four-hour hike to Vallun Chafuol via the 2545m saddle of Murter, looking out for fossilized coral and dinosaur tracks. The 7 most scenic road trips in Switzerland A curve-horned ibex in Swiss National Park © Polmy / Getty Wildlife in the Swiss National Park With plenty of space to roam free, the Swiss National Park provides a safe haven for all of the classic wildlife you come to the Alps to see–and then some. With luck and patience, you might sight marmots standing sentinel over their burrow, red deer, nimble-footed chamois and, at higher elevations, curve-horned ibex. Bears, wolves and lynx have staged the occasional appearance in the park in recent years, too, often scampering over the border from Italy. But they come and go as they please and are highly elusive. The park is also a twitcher’s dream, with regular sightings of mountain species such as golden eagles and reintroduced bearded vultures, Alpine choughs and the rock ptarmigan, whose plumage is snow white in winter. At lower elevations, you find water pipits in the meadows, and in the forests Eurasian eagle-owls, hazel grouse, western capercaillie, spotted nutcrackers and black woodpeckers. Guided walks in the Swiss National Park To maximize your chances of glimpsing the park’s rarest, shiest inhabitants, bring binoculars and hook onto one of the guided walks run by the park rangers, who are a dab hand at spotting wildlife from a mile off. Expert guides lead insightful half- and full-day walks in the park from mid-June to mid-October, some of which are specifically geared towards families. These cost around Sfr35 for adults/Sfr15 for children. The tours are in German but some guides speak English. [H2] Staying in the Swiss National Park There are only two places to stay actually in the park and camping is off-limits. Hidden in the thrillingly wild Val Cluozza, the Chamanna Cluozza fulfills every off-grid log hut fantasy. At 1882m (6174ft) above sea level, it commands enthralling views of the moraine-streaked Livigno Alps razoring their way into Italy, Making as light an imprint as possible, the hut is simple, with no phone reception and hydropower only for the essentials. But the air is pure, the views are uplifting and the food is hearty (all bookings include half-board). Bring your own sleeping bag. Another option, close to many of the trailheads, is Hotel Parc Naziunal Il Fuorn, a light, comfy, pine-clad guesthouse going strong since 1509. Fresh trout and game are big at the excellent on-site restaurant. The Umbrail Pass which leads from Switzerland to Italy in the Eastern Alps © Tim Graham / Getty Images Make it happen Summer is the time to hike and explore in the Swiss National Park, as many of the trails in the park close in winter due to snowfall and to give the wildlife all-important breathing space. Your first port of call for a visit should be the excellent Swiss National Park Centre in Zernez, where you can get an overview of the park’s wildlife and geology, book guided hikes and pick up a handy 1:50,000 park map and guide. Trains and buses run between the quaint Engadine villages on the fringes of the park, including Zernez, Scuol, Lavin, Zuoz and S-chanf. The Swiss National Park website has an interactive map and a free, multilingual app for download, which works mostly offline and is packed with information, anecdotes and detailed maps. The Swiss Alpine Club publishes reliable topographic walking maps at a 1:25,000 scale. Edelweiss at Swiss National Park © DieterMeyrl / Getty The best time to go to Switzerland Did you know? Brushed with beautiful wildflower meadows, the Swiss National Park is one of the few accessible places in the Swiss Alps where it is still possible to spot the rare, protected edelweiss (Leontopodium alpinum) flower. Growing at altitudes of 2000m (6561ft) and above, the delicate, fuzzy white, star-shaped bloom holds a cherished place in Swiss hearts. In times past, young men once risked life and limb by clambering up rocky, exposed heights to pluck a single flower to woo their sweethearts and demonstrate their devotion and daring. Just back from: Swiss Alps
If ever a view in Switzerland is going to leave you dumbstruck (and there are a few great ones to choose from!), it will surely be the infinite swoop of the Aletsch Glacier, the largest ice stream in the Alps. On cloudless days, great razor-like peaks poke 4000m above it, piercing into the bright blue sky. See it from a certain angle and the holy trinity of the Bernese Alps, Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau, sneak into the picture. It's a shudderingly beautiful sight that will burn into the hard-drive of your memory like no other. Located in the canton of Valais, in the country’s south, the moraine-streaked, deeply crevassed 23km-long superhighway of ice powers through some of the highest mountains in the Swiss Alps. Elsewhere, such terrain would be off-bounds or accessible only to hardcore mountaineers. But, this being Switzerland, nature is harnessed in the most delightful and sustainable way, and you can hike right alongside it, accompanied by the occasional flock of inquisitive blacknose sheep. Two hikers walk over the rugged landscape of the Aletsch Glacier © Pete Seaward / Lonely Planet Geology of the Aletsch Glacier The Aletsch Glacier is the icing on the Unesco World Heritage cake of the Swiss Alps Jungfrau-Aletsch region. Roughly 23km long and with a volume of 15.4 km3, the glacier is the largest glacier in the European Alps, carrying 11 billion tons of ice from the northern slopes of Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau down to the Valais. The glacier has two medial moraines – the dark lines running the length of the glacier showing where two glaciers have merged. At the end of the last Ice Age, 11,000 years ago, the glacier extended down into the Rhône Valley. In 1860, the glacier was 3km longer than it is today and its edges were about 200m higher. Like many glaciers that have succumbed to a similar fate because of climate change, the Aletsch glacier is sadly retreating, shrinking by about 50m in length each year and dropping significantly at its edges. If it continues to retreat at this rate, predictions suggest that it will have lost half of its volume by 2100. Views of the Aletsch Glacier Most get their first riveting glimpse of the glacier from its head at Jungfraujoch in the Bernese Oberland, where the view of the swirling ice is dramatically framed by perennially snow-capped Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau. Impressive? Without doubt. But it gets better. For ringside views of the glacier you need to get up close to the ice on the hiking trail (see below) that shadows its frozen expanse. Excellent vantage points include Eggishorn (2927m), Bettmerhorn (2647m) and Moosfluh (2333m) in Valais, which are connected by cable cars and lifts climbing from Fiesch, Bettmeralp and Riederalp. A view from the Aletsch Forest overlooking the mighty Aletsch Glacier © Frederic Huber Photography / Getty Images Hiking at the Aletsch Glacier The pull of the Aletsch Glacier is never stronger than when you are striding alongside its ice-blue majesty, breathing in the pure Alpine air and gazing up in wonder at the four-thousanders that thrust above it. To name one ‘must-do’ trek in a region of epic walks is tough, but our money goes on the 17km, five- to six-hour, moderately challenging day hike from Fiescheralp to Bettmeralp. The trail initially heads north towards Eggishorn, with the sound of cowbells accompanying the grandstand views of the Aletsch Arena peaks, the more distant (yet ever distinctive) pyramid of the Matterhorn and, further away still and over the border in France, Mont Blanc etched on the horizon. The viewpoint overlooking the Fieschergletscher is the prelude to the big one. Snaking down from the eastern flank of Grosses Fiescherhorn, a razor-edge peak at 4049m, this 16km swirl of eternal ice is the second biggest glacier in the Alps. From here, the route winds around slopes above the Fieschertal and up through a rock-strewn gully, gradually steepening as it negotiates switchbacks up to a rock erected on a wooden platform. The trail then heads westwards to the remote valley of Märjela, its mountain hut, and the Märjelensee, a milky turquoise splash of a lake buttressed by immense mountains and the rim of the Aletsch Glacier. Horn-shaped peaks glower down, among them the 4193m dagger of the Aletschhorn. The Aletsch Glacier is now your constant companion as the path skirts the deeply crevassed ice. Avoid the peak summer season and fellow hikers are few, but you might sight chamois, ibex and marmots with luck and clever timing, and almost certainly the shaggy-haired blacknose sheep that are totally at ease in this wilderness of rock and ice. A pretty sweep of Swiss stone pine forest and glittering tarns soften the Alpine picture as you continue along a ridge and on to the grassy slopes of Moosfluh, where a strategically placed bench offers staggering glacier views. Soon after you’ll reach the glass-blue lake of Blausee, where the mountains pause to admire their reflection. From here it is just a stone’s throw back to Bettmeralp. A rock climber works her way up a cliff face near the Aletsch Glacier © Lost Horizon Images / Getty Images Where to stay With dark-timber chalets totally dwarfed by the colossal mountain backdrop, the hamlets that snuggle up to the glacier, Bettmeralp, Riederalp and Fiescheralp, have plenty of enticing self-catering and B&B options for an overnight stay. But if you want to get closer to the icy wilderness, nothing beats bedding down at Gletscherstube Märjelensee, a mountain hut open from mid-July to September that’s located right on the hiking trail that rims the glacier. Peering out across the turquoise lake at Märjelenalp, this privately run lodge is warm, woody and reached on foot in around an hour-and-a-half from the cable car station at Fiescheralp. The pine-clad dorms are quiet, families are welcome and simple mountain grub (Rösti and the like) features on the menu. Should you wish to get closer to nature and the stars, book the outdoor bed fashioned from a wooden crate. Need to know Getting there: Regional trains link Fiesch to Brig (45 minutes), with high-speed onward connections to major Swiss cities including the capital Bern (one hour) and Zurich (two hours). For timetables and tickets, see SBB. When to go: Because of the high-Alpine terrain, the trail is best hiked from June to September. What to wear/pack: Bring a fleece, waterproofs and sturdy walking boots, plus a hat and sunscreen. Take ample water and snacks as if the hut is closed there is little in the way of sustenance en route. More info: www.aletscharena.ch
If ever a castle could fit the fairy-tale bill, the dashingly handsome Château de Chillon would be it, with its moat, double ramparts and riot of turrets and towers, plus knockout views of Lake Geneva and the French Alps. Scenically plonked on a rocky, oval-shaped island near Montreux, this is Switzerland’s pin-up castle, but try as you might to capture its beauty, all camera snaps seem to fall short. Counts, dukes and bailiffs, poets and prisoners have left their indelible mark on its maze of courtyards, watchtowers, bastions and halls, filled with arms, period furniture, frescoes and artwork. And its Gothic romance proved irresistible to everyone from Turner to Lord Byron and Mary Shelley. Visit the castle when the crowds subside and you too will find history and views that inspire towards the lyrical and the profound. Château de Chillon is one of the most visited castles in Switzerland © cge2010 / Shutterstock History of Château de Chillon On a site occupied since the Bronze Age, Château de Chillon echoes with the stories of counts and dukes, great feasts, damp cells and dark deeds. Savoy period From the 12th century to 1536, the House of Savoy controlled the fortress and the lakeshore. Suckers for a strategically placed castle, the Counts of Savoy used Château de Chillon to profit from the north-to-south Via Francigena route that passed right in front of the fort, filling their coffers with the generous contributions of travellers, merchants and pilgrims heading to Rome by way of the Great Saint Bernard Alpine Pass. In the 13th century, Peter II of Savoy converted the castle into a summer residence. Its underground vaults later became a jail. Nobleman, historian and libertine François Bonivard, the castle’s most famous prisoner, languished in the dungeon’s dank depths for six years in the 16th century for preaching about the Reformation – a hero of sorts later immortalised in Lord Byron’s The Prisoner of Chillon poem. Bernese period The Savoy slowly began to ditch Chillon in favour of other castles, eventually leaving it derelict until the Bernese rocked up in 1536, having just conquered the Pays de Vaud. The castle became the bailiff’s permanent residence and was used as a stronghold, arsenal and prison, then later for storage. In 1733, the bailiffs left the castle and upped sticks for more modern, comfortable digs. Vaudois period Around the time of the Vaud Revolution in 1798, patriots of Vevey and Montreux seized the castle from the Bernese bailiffs, who left gracefully and without a fight. The castle has been owned by the canton of Vaud ever since, who used it to store weapons and ammunition, and subsequently as a state prison. Following restoration work in the 19th century, the castle has become one of Switzerland’s most popular cultural attractions. It also occasionally hosts events, such as musical concerts. Artistic inspiration in Château de Chillon Château de Chillon had Romantic writers, artists and poets in raptures in the 19th century, with its medieval looks, Gothic soul and gory history. None captured it better than Lord Byron in his 1816 poem The Prisoner of Chillon, recounting the fate and suffering of François Bonivard, thrown into the dungeon for his seditious, anti-Savoy ideas and freed by Bernese forces in 1536. Byron carved his name into the pillar to which Bonivard was supposedly chained (though some do claim the poet's signature to be a fake). Painters William Turner and Gustave Courbet subsequently immortalised the castle’s silhouette on canvas, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Alexandre Dumas wrote about it. The supposed signature of poet Lord Byron at Château de Chillon © Julien Viry / Getty Images Highlights of Château de Chillon Self-guided tours of the castle present a fascinating romp around 36 rooms and courtyards. Top billing goes to the highly atmospheric Gothic vaults, originally used for supplies and weapons. Peter II, Count of Savoy, transformed them into a prison in 1290. In the spooky dungeon, you can sneak a peek at the original rock the castle was built on and the impressive medieval vaults upon which the whole fortress rests. Gazing wistfully out across Lake Geneva, the castle’s trio of great halls is where the counts and dukes threw lavish banquets or dispensed justice below soaring columns and coffered ceilings. The faded 14th-century murals of exotic beasts and foliage festooning the Camera Domini (Lord’s Bedroom) are among the castle’s best preserved, rivalled only by those in the Chapelle St Georges. Though the chapel fell into disuse during the Reformation and was later used as a granary and powder house, its 14th-century biblical frescoes are remarkably intact. Sounds from the battlefield add a dash of drama to the weapons exhibition in the keep, the castle’s 11th-century kernel. Once accessed by drawbridge, it has been a guard tower, residence, storage, prison and powder house over the centuries. Clamber up to the top floor for wholly arresting views of the castle, lake and mountains. Exploring around Château de Chillon Make a day of it by walking from Montreux to the magnificent stone hulk of Château de Chillon. Hugging the lakeshore and lined with sculptures and vibrant flower beds, the 3km Chemin Fleuri (Floral Path) promenade frames the sensational lake and Alpine views perfectly. If the weather is fine, you can’t beat a refreshing dip in the lake with castle views at Plage du Château de Chillon. Open from June to September, the free lakeside lido has a little beach for picnicking, swimming and castle gazing. The view from the top of Château de Chillon © Victor Cristescu / 500px Practicalities CGN boats and steamers stop at Château de Chillon – a terrifically atmospheric way to arrive; it’s a 15-minute journey from Montreux. Tickets for the castle can be booked online. Try to avoid the crush by visiting first thing in the morning or late in the afternoon, and avoiding weekends and peak summer season. Combined tickets include an audio guide (available in 10 languages). For a quick coffee with a dreamy castle and lake view, try Café Byron. Food-wise, you’re better off heading back into Montreux. Did you know? The castle has its own wine, Clos de Chillon, produced from the region’s white Chasselas grape. The 12,500-sq-m vineyards spread across slopes close to the castle and form part of the Unesco World Heritage Lavaux. If you fancy a historic drop, you can buy a bottle at the museum shop.
Bern’s answer to the Guggenheim, Renzo Piano’s architecturally bold, 150m-long wave-like edifice houses an exhibition space that showcases rotating works from Paul Klee’s prodigious and often playful career. Interactive computer displays and audioguides help interpret the Swiss-born artist’s work. Next door, the fun-packed Kindermuseum Creaviva lets kids experiment with hands-on art exhibits or create original artwork with the atelier’s materials during the weekend program Five Franc Studio. Bus 12 runs from Bubenbergplatz direct to the museum.
Rising dramatically above the Old Town, this medieval stronghold is Bellinzona’s most visible icon. Head up Salita San Michele from Piazza Collegiata, or take the lift, buried deep in the rocky hill in an extraordinary concrete bunker-style construction, from Piazza del Sole. After wandering the grounds and the museum, stroll west along the Murata, the castle’s snaking ramparts, with photogenic views of vine-streaked mountains and castle-studded hills.
Showcasing the works of the adjoining, eponymous high-end furniture manufacturer, Vitra Campus comprises the dazzling Vitra Design Museum (of Guggenheim Bilbao architect Frank Gehry fame), the Vitra Haus, the Vitra Schaudepot (both by Herzog & de Meuron) and an ever-expanding bevy of installations by cutting-edge architects and designers, including Carsten Höller's whimsical, corkscrewing 30m-high Vitra Slide. Visiting is a must for serious lovers of architecture and industrial and interior design. Save your pennies and suitcase space for ubercool souvenirs. Two-hour architecture tours run at 11.30am and 1pm. The campus is located just across the German border, in Weil am Rhein. To get here, take tram 8 from SBB Basel station, Barfüsserplatz or Claraplatz to the terminus at Weil am Rhein Bahnhof/Zentrum, or walk the Rehberger-Weg.
Ensnared in wispy spray, the thunderous Rheinfall might not give Niagara much competition in height (23m), width (150m) or even flow of water (700 cu metres per second in summer), but Europe's largest plain waterfall is stunning nonetheless. Trails thread up and along its shore, with viewpoints providing abundant photo ops.
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