In Switzerland, the extraordinary becomes commonplace. Sapphire mountain lakes, glinting in emerald-green valleys and surrounded by glacier-encrusted, white-tipped mountains that twinkle like diamonds in the sun, are thick on the ground. Incredible feats of engineering that take trains through some of the planet's most unforgiving terrain with precise punctuality hardly warrant a raised eyebrow. And mountains whose names conjure up images of heroic men with frozen beards and sunburned faces, and whose scale reboots our definition of size, arrive like buses – in quick succession. In this land, famed for its silky-smooth chocolate, its efficient, cuckoo-clock timekeeping, its jangling cowbells and its crater-filled cheese, the clichés are but a small part of the story. Switzerland is a postcard brought vividly to life, and although the extraordinary is commonplace, it is absolutely priceless.
Read on to discover more of what Switzerland has to offer...
The Swiss National Park
Imagine gentle paths that wind through valleys of uncut meadows awash with wildflowers in spring and summer; rocky trails that skirt babbling brooks through valleys, where marmots and chamoix roam unafraid and where bearded vultures soar overhead. Since the Swiss National Park was established over a century ago, no trees have been felled, no animals hunted and no meadows mown. Unhindered by the hand of man, nature has reclaimed this slice of Switzerland. In a country so driven by order and tidiness, imagine how glorious that must be. Then go to the Engadine Valley and find out for yourself...
The Glacier Express
Officially the ‘world's slowest express train’, The Glacier Express shuttles unhurriedly between St Moritz and Zermatt through 91 tunnels and over 291 bridges. It averages around 30mph and takes in almost eight hours’ worth of spellbinding scenery. So sit back and enjoy the view as you cut through the meadows of the Upper Engadine, as if gliding along the grass; then rise to 2,033 metres at the Oberalp Pass – the pinnacle of many such highlights. Then gawp as you perform a looping helter-skelter of switchback bends, feeling like a lazy mountaineer with your comfy seat and slice of cake. This is one rail journey you wish would take longer than scheduled; but this is Switzerland, so it never does.
The Fine Art of Hospitality
At the Hotel Castle in Blitzingen, Peter Gschwendtner has raised traditional Alpine hospitality to an art form. A ski instructor and a passionate climber who, in 2004, added Mount Everest to his summit credentials, Peter, together with his wife Brigitte, provides a stylish and gastronomic retreat with views down the glorious Goms Valley. An accomplished chef, he sources his menus from fresh, local ingredients, creating delectable dishes that look good enough to hang in a gallery.
The Matterhorn looks exactly like a mountain should, its near-perfect pyramidal point rising above a ragged sea of its peers. Standing at 4,478 metres, it's not the highest Alpine peak, but its legendary invincibility and unmistakable outline draw visitors from across the globe. Escape the hordes, though, by heading to Chez Vrony for lunch: this venerable institution’s cushioned wooden loungers, excellent food and sense of history – tracing Zermatt’s rise from remote mountain village to world-famous tourist destination – make it the perfect place from which to gaze upon the 'King of the Alps' across the valley.
A Land of Four Languages
Right at the heart of Europe and known for eschewing conflict, it should perhaps come as no surprise to learn that Switzerland has not one national language, but four. In this meeting-point of three main language areas, German, French and Italian are relatively widely spoken; but head to the south-eastern canton of Graubünden and you will hear a different tongue entirely. Romansch is a descendant of spoken Latin, having survived for 1,500 years thanks to the isolated position of communities in the Upper Rhine and Inn valleys. Here, somewhat incredibly, it remains the first language of 35,000 people.
To the 'Top of Europe'
From Kleine Scheidegg, where views encompass a formidable trio (the Jungfrau, Mönch and Eiger), ride the Jungfraubahn through the north face of the Eiger – an astonishing feat of engineering – to reach Jungfraujoch, the highest railway station in Europe at 3,454 metres. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so forgive the crowds of camera-toting tourists as you soak it all up: the incredible journey, the monumental views, and that never-to-be-forgotten moment when you step out onto the Aletsch Glacier’s viewing platform and gaze upon the Alps’ unspeakable beauty.
Nestling on the shores of its sapphire-hued lake, at the crossroads of the Swiss Plateau and the Alps, Lucerne effortlessly blends the radiance of its surroundings and the allure of its historic heart with a vibrant, cosmopolitan atmosphere. Straddled by its landmark water towers and wooden bridges bedecked with red geraniums, the river Reuss flows gently through the city; while among the frescoed buildings, fountain squares and bustling markets of the Old Town, a coffee-and-cake culture thrives in pretty pavement cafés, where locals and visitors alike bask in the glorious surroundings.
Swiss Food & Wine
In a country dominated by natural attractions and man-made ingenuity, Swiss gastronomy falls well down the priority list for most visitors, so a hearty and flavoursome cuisine – featuring tasty cured meats, heavenly chocolate and gooey cheese that is desperate to be dipped in – comes as a very welcome surprise. So, too, do the Swiss wines that many regard as the country’s best-kept secret. The yields – from impossibly pretty vineyards – are low, so this is more about quality than quantity; and a passionate band of winemakers is well-versed in the art of turning out earthy, ruby-red Dôle – or a floral, clean-tasting Chasselas. Small wonder the Swiss are happy to keep their wines to themselves.
Rigi - Queen of the Mountains
Among a people who traditionally bestow a masculine identity upon their mountains, Die Rigi is a notable exception. This is partly a nod to its status as Switzerland’s ‘Queen of the Mountains’, and perhaps also in deference to Queen Victoria, one of many illustrious visitors here, whose ascent by sedan chair in 1868 helped to inspire the Rigi Royal Tour – a journey you can complete today. Beginning with a boat trip across Lake Lucerne, you then board a cog railway to the summit for the mother (or queen) of all views.