Sunday, November 11, 2012

Tour de Switzerland

It's coming up nearly two years since I arrived in Switzerland. And it flies by pretty quickly. There's been quite a bit I've come to like about this country - in fact, you can see a list here - one of which I have no hesitation in saying is Switzerland's proximity to everywhere else in Europe. In fact, it was one of the first things I wrote about. Jump on a train three hours north-west and find yourself in Paris; three hours south-east you'll end up saying buongiorno in Milan; and two hours' flight will take you pretty much anywhere in Europe. 

But I haven't really seen much of Switzerland itself. Living in one of Europe's most beautiful countries - and one that has some of the continent's most recognisable icons - that's rather sad.  So, much as I will always be willing to jump on a plane or train and venture outside of Switzerland's borders, I've recently decided to turn that around and see what Switzerland has to offer. 

And what an offering. I had long wanted to see perhaps the most instantly recognisable mountain on Earth - the Matterhorn. However to make the trip worthwhile - it's a bit of schlep, taking two trains and nearly four hours from Nyon - it's best to pick a clear day. 

A mountain that needs no introduction
We had a long weekend in September with fine weather, so after making sure that the weather at the Matterhorn was fine and clear - thanks to the magic of webcams - we headed for Zermatt, the famous ski town at the base of the mountain. Although traditionally a ski resort town, more associated with powder snow and freezing temperatures, Zermatt in late summer nonetheless buzzes with tourists and, of course, hard core Swiss hikers. 

After arriving in Zermatt, we walked through the town in a state of anticipated excitement - where's the Matterhorn? We round a bend in one of the pedestrian-only streets of the village - and there it stood, in its majestic, iconic, postcard picture-like beauty. 

Taking a series of cable cars from the village, we head up for the mountains. I'd never been to the mountains above Zermatt at all, let alone in winter - though that's another goal for another day - but seeing it summer was a strange experience. The landscape in the high mountains, bare of snow, was almost moon-like - grey, rocky, devoid of vegetation. 

The Alps from the summit of the Klein Matterhorn
After taking a couple of cable cars up ever higher, we take the last one for the end of the line - the top of the Klein Matterhorn (Little Matterhorn). With the summit at nearly 4,000m above sea level, it's the highest point on land I've ever been. standing on the summit is an awesome experience; the Matterhorn itself so close you can almost touch it, with cloud billowing off the warm face of the Italian side of the Matterhorn. To its left, the high peaks of the Alps roll off as far as the eye can see. I'm halfway to heaven and it's an experience I'll never forget. 

Back down to earth, and a few days later we're heading for Bern, Switzerland's capital. Bern is a little like some of the world's other capitals; the seat of a country's power, it's famous for being the capital - and not much else. Comparisons with Washington DC and Canberra in Australia spring to mind. 

It's not my first visit to the Swiss capital - that was on a miserable Sunday in winter earlier last year, and was a bit of a disaster. Horrible, cold, wet weather, and - being a Sunday - nothing open and nothing to do. I wasn't in a hurry to go back, so when Emperor D suggested we visit Bern on a Saturday at the end of summer, I was surprised - but after hesitating, decided to give Bern another chance. 

The River Aare coasts past Bern
I'm glad I did. While it will never meet the verve (well, for Switzerland) of Zurich or even Geneva, it is a pleasant city that's lively enough on a Saturday afternoon in summer. The old part of the town is gorgeous, with cobblestone streets, and Swiss chocolate box architecture. The River Aare that circumnavigates it, is a brilliant ceylon sapphire blue, with a fast-running current. Even on a day that struggled to get out of the 20s in temperature, it looked inviting enough; on a hot day in high summer, I can only imagine how packed it must get. 

We ended the day by coming across a small, pop-up rock concert in a terraced park by the river, not far from the train station. We took in local acts - some good, some truly awful - belting out rock tunes with English lyrics on the top of a bus while enjoying a pint of beer or a glass of wine. It wasn't a side of Bern that I expected to see, but I was nonetheless glad to see it, since it made me realise that first impressions don't always last. 

Then, during October, with autumn in full swing, we headed for the UNESCO heritage-listed terraced vineyards of the Lavaux region, at the top of Lake Geneva. Lavaux is famous for its vineyards and the wines that it produced from their grapes; it’s supposed to be particularly beautiful in autumn as the vines change colour.

Terraced vineyards of Lavaux
A group of us headed for the tiny lakeside village of Lutry, just east of Lausanne. From there we took a tourist train through the Lavaux region – the best way to see them – where we could see the vines marching up the hills in glorious autumn shades of yellow, orange and red. At the end of the trip, back in Lutry, we headed back up into the Lavaux vineyards where we eventually found a couple of bottles of local wines (self-service; very trusting of the Swiss with alcohol involved!), some disposable wine glasses and, finding a picnic table, sat down and soaked up the late Sunday afternoon autumn sun, with a couple of glasses of wine and a great view of the lake and the Alps. Happy times.

Heading back down the hill to catch the train back was an interesting experience, especially after a couple of glasses of wine and feeling a little on the light-headed side. With us in danger of missing the train and the next one not another for half an hour, and with the road down being too far away and winding, we took a shortcut – through the vineyards themselves. They are terraced, so getting down wasn’t too bad, but it did make for an adventurous end to the day trying to find our way through the vineyards, and ending up in someone’s backyard. I’m sure that’s not the first time that’s happened to them.

I’m glad I’ve got out and seen more of the country. I’ve been to Zurich as well in the last couple of weeks, but there’s still so much more to see. So, when in Switzerland, go and see her – she’s got a lot to offer.

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