Frequently denigrated as dull and humourless, birthplace of nothing more than cuckoo clocks and chocolate, Switzerland is often ignored despite its spectacular beauty. Famously neutral and economically successful, the realisation that this land is every bit as stunning as a fairytale seems to add fuel to the jealousy that is undoubtedly behind the dismissive stereotypes. In reality, it’s almost impossible to be disappointed with a trip to Switzerland; visitors soon find themselves embracing the comfort and irresistably relaxing in the face of infrastructure and organisation that is as good as it gets anywhere in the world.
LANGUAGE: Switzerland famously has four official languages, German, French, Italian and Romansh. This is further complicated by the fact that although ‘high German’ is taught in schools, the significantly different Swiss German is the spoken variation – and even within Swiss German, radically different dialects are used in different areas.
However, this familiarity with the concept of multiple languages means that the Swiss are perfectly used to hearing other tongues and are accommodating when it comes to communication. Not surprisingly, the amount and standard of English spoken is excellent, so visitors will have no problems being understood.
CURRENCY: Like Britain, Switzerland chose not to adopt the euro, although in practice the euro is accepted in some border areas and tourist regions. The currency is the Swiss franc. Switzerland is a notoriously expensive country, although British travellers will find prices to be only a little higher than London prices, for example. However, this can vary throughout the country significantly; Geneva, as discussed, has reached a point that is likely to shock even affluent visitors.
TRAVEL: Swiss International Air Lines (SWISS) took over most of the routes, planes and staff of predecessor Swissair in 2002. Renowned for quality, in typical Swiss style the airline offers an excellent, reliable service. SWISS currently serves 74 destinations in 38 countries all over the world, with its main hub in Zurich and a fleet of 92 aircraft. There are seven daily flights from Heathrow to Zurich alone, with five a day from Heathrow to Geneva; SWISS also runs several daily flights from London City, Gatwick, Manchester and Birmingham airports. W: www.swiss.com
Public transport in Switzerland lives up to its reputation; this is one country where you would be mad to take a car. Clean, punctual to the second and even luxurious (double decker trains with reclining seats, anyone? Local mountain buses that have their own free wi-fi?), public transport really is part of the experience and not an inconvenience.
By far the most sensible option for visitors is the Swiss Pass, offering unlimited travel on the Swiss travel network. The initial cost might cause a brief gulp, but you will recoup the price after only a few journeys, and the convenience alone is worth paying for. Forget equating it to British rail travel; you are paying for a first-class, highly reliable service that is likely to also include a range of gorgeous views from the windows. W: www.swiss-pass.co.uk
FOOD: Want a taste of Switzerland right here in Britain? Forget Toblerone – Swiss company Emmi is behind several familiar products on our shelves, including Onken yoghurts (with a delicious new müesli pot range). Emmi is the largest Swiss milk processor and a renowned specialist for Swiss cheese too, and they are also the name behind a popular iced coffee range sold throughout the UK.
Barely more than an hour by train south-east of Zurich, the Graubünden region of Switzerland is the largest of the country’s 26 cantons. The capital is Chur, the oldest town in Switzerland, nestled deeply among the Alps but nearly 2,000 feet above sea level. Ancient passageways in the medieval old part of town weave their way among picturesque buildings, before suddenly opening onto charming squares complete with the ubiquitous flower-decked fountains. Visitors and locals sit at open-air cafes and enjoy the scene and atmosphere, as this bustling little town successfully balances its daily life with tourism.
Archaeological discoveries on city ground date back to 9,000 – 12,000 years BC. Chur has been continuously populated for at least 5000 years, likely due to its strategic situation. The gateway to important trade routes and passes through the Alps, throughout the centuries Chur was able to benefit from the thousands of merchants passing through.
The 8th century St. Martin’s Church in the centre of the old town was rebuilt in 1491 after a fire. The site of John Comander's persuasive sermons in 1524, it became Protestant in 1525. Local tradition has it that Martin Luther himself delivered a ten minute speech here in the 1520s; if true, it is unknown whether his presence turned the tide against Catholicism or merely encouraged an existing Protestant congregation. The church contains three stained glass windows created in 1919 by Augusto Giacometti, the father of the Graubünden sculptor Alberto Giacometti. Visitors can also climb up inside the steeple to see the bells. Higher up the hill, the small St. Lucius church is part of the St. Lucius seminary and dates from the 12th to 13th centuries, on the site of an 8th century predecessor. There are lots of curious medieval antiquities in the sacristy, Romanesque reliefs and other religious carvings.
Chur also has some great museums, including the Rätisches Museum and an art museum. For those who like to get outdoors, Chur is an ideal base for summer hiking and for visiting vineyards in the local winemaking region. The gateway to the Grisons mountains, Chur is great for Switzerland’s winter sports as well.
Visitors who like to get hands-on when learning about a country’s traditions should consider taking an alphorn workshop. The distinctive vast wooden instruments are tricky to get the hang of, since sounding different notes is down to mouth positions and breathing techniques only. Originally used for communicating across the vast Swiss valleys and for calling home sheep and cows, playing the alphorn is a art form. There are currently around 4,000 alphorn players in Switzerland, taking part in festivals, competitions and concerts.
Stay: Comfort Hotel Post offers neat, clean rooms and an excellent breakfast, and the very central location can’t be beaten.
Eat: Hotel Drei Könige offers a menu which includes several ‘Bündner’ (Graubünden) specialities.
Travelling deeper into Graubünden, Davos (and its famous neighbour Klosters) are best known for skiing and other winter sports, but in reality they have a great deal to offer throughout the whole year. The town of Davos hosts the World Economic Forum almost every year, so facilities can deal effortlessly with a large amount of international visitors.
At 5,120 feet, Davos is the highest town in Europe, but the Schatzalp mountain looms impressively over the town from even higher. Schatzalp was the inspiration behind Thomas Mann’s novel ‘The Magic Mountain’, published in 1924, and the best place to visit in the whole of Davos is waiting at the top. After an enjoyable but fairly unrelentingly steep walk, or a speedy journey on the funicular railway, the Hotel Schatzalp and resort area welcomes visitors into a different era.
From the middle of the 19th century, Davos became a popular destination for recovering invalids from around the world, as the high valley air was thought to be excellent for patients with lung diseases such as tuberculosis in particular. The luxury sanitorium on Schatzalp opened its doors in 1900 and has maintained its Art Nouveau style ever since. The distinctive sanitorium layout has also been maintained, with a wide covered verandah all along the front, balconies with loungers, huge windows overlooking the view and bedroom doors and corridors wide enough to accommodate beds on wheels. Incredibly evocative and atmospheric, some people might find it a touch too austere and hospital-like, especially if they were to stay in one of the rooms that still has its elegant but bare sanitorium bathroom. However, most visitors are blown away by the charm and elegance, not to mention the peaceful air the place maintains.
Outside the impressive main entrance, a small fountain trickles gently in a bed of Alpine flowers, including lots of edelweiss; the gardens include a special Alpine botanical area with about 800 different species of plants from around the world. Inside, rooms from the sanitorium have been integrated rather than completely changed, so the X-ray room is now the TV lounge. Look out for the tiled and marble spit sink, located halfway along one of the bedroom corridors, and the old panelled lift with metal cage doors. The restaurant is a vision of chandeliers, white linen and mirrors, and serves an excellent range of local and international specialities.
Elsewhere in the Davos area, the Kirchner Museum in the town houses the world’s largest collection of works by the German Expressionist artist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. A few miles down the road, a popular option for Alpine hiking is to take the cablecar from the Davos Glaris stop up the Rinerhorn mountain. From there, many superb trails begin, of varying degrees of difficulty, taking walkers along mountain pathways, across trickling streams and waterfalls, through wildflower meadows and forests. It is possible to walk on an easy but stunning trail all the way to Monstein, an impossibly picturesque mountain village full of traditional wooden Swiss chalets with window boxes full of blooms.
In the centre of the village, the Monstein Brewery is the highest brewery in Europe, cooking up delicious beers for sale throughout Switzerland. Brewery tours are available, enabling visitors to view the enormous copper vats, sacks of grains and the bottling conveyor belt. Swiss beer is ideally accompanied by the air-dried meat also famous in the area; pop by the traditional factory Bischofberger in Churwalden to pick up some of the best quality meat you'll ever have eaten.
If a trip to this area is fortunate enough to coincide with the annual ‘Sertig Schwinget’, visitors should make every effort to attend. One of the oldest sporting events of its kind in Switzerland, wrestlers and spectators meet in the Sertig Valley, surrounded by glorious mountains that are snowy-capped even in summer. Folk music and traditional food add to the festive atmosphere. The wrestling takes place in 12 metre rings of loose sawdust, with the aim being to floor your opponent so that more than half of their back touches the sawdust.
Stay: Hilton Garden Inn in the centre of Davos near the conference centre of Davos almost opposite the congress centre has lovely rooms with balconies, a stylish, comfortable lobby area, great bar and The Grill restaurant, which offers a range of delicious local and international food. Free wifi, a wonderful breakfast buffet complete with waffle machine, the 24/7 'Pavilion Pantry' shop, a brand new health and fitness club and four high-tech conference rooms make this a hotel which is just ideal no matter what sort of traveller you are.
Eat: Take the funicular up to Schatzalp and enjoy an elegant dinner in old-fashioned surroundings.
Visitors looking for a town break instead of a countryside holiday have a choice of Swiss cities that varies wildly. Geneva, so close to France that it virtually stretches over the border, is a popular option for tourists as well as business travellers and of course international visitors attending the United Nations. In a wonderful location curving round Lake Geneva, at the foot of the Jura Mountains, the international airport is just ten minutes from the city centre. This complex city has many facets, from the world banking and international politics aspect, to its position as the birthplace of fine watchmaking and a centre for designer retail, to its role as the hub of Protestantism and key for the Reformation.
The ‘Geneva Mystery’ is a brand new tourism concept designed to encourage visitors to engage with the main sights in the old town. It allows participants to discover the city independently in a way that is exciting and different. Especially suitable for small groups or families, it is available in either French or English and includes admission tickets for the museums visited on the route and a map of theOldTown. Designed as an adventure story and trail, with the visitor as the investigator, participants become involved in a thrilling plot which ultimately leads them round all the main historical sites of theOldTown. A renowned history and archaeology professor fromGenevaUniversityhas disappeared in the middle of the night in 1893, and at the same time, a valuable painting has been stolen.
The high quality, attractive booklet takes participants through the story and round all the main sights, with their particular route and discoveries depending on choices they make and answers they give along the way. Perhaps the best aspect is that deduction and observation are essential, along with some concentration; this is no gimmick, as without correctly figuring out the answers or spotting the clues on buildings and in museums the route takes you to, you can’t successfully move on to the next section. So, on arriving in the underground museum beneath St Pierre’s cathedral (a fascinating display of insitu excavations including Roman mosaics, Early Christian churches and a medieval crypt), ‘the number of figures in the 12th century Roman crypt’ is the number of the next section you need to turn to. Genevais going to see lots of groups of visitors standing around in various key locations scratching their heads and poring over the booklet!
It turns out that cuckoo clocks, believe it or not, were not actually invented in Switzerland but originate from the Black Forest area of Germany. This misconception dealt with, Geneva nonetheless is definitely the watch capital of the world. This is visible even to the most casual visitor, as the headquarters of names such as Rolex and Patek Philippe surround Lake Geneva in impressive townhouses. The Patek Philippe Museum is particularly worth visiting, as it is not only an exceptionally fine collection of timepieces from the 16th century onwards, but a lovely building and surely an example of how to create a near-perfect museum and archive.
Luxury visitor facilities and a beautifully designed library of 8,000 works on horology show how good such a destination can be - with enough time, imagination and of course money. The collection includes the earliest watch ever made and it is possible to spend hour after hour simply gazing at the intricate beauty of some of the pieces, as they include everything from portrait miniatures to musical automata and gemencrusted specimens. The museum also features the Patek Philippe collection from 1839 onwards and the most complicated timepiece ever made, the Caliber 89.
Elsewhere in Geneva, visitors are unlikely to miss the city’s most famous sight, the Jet d’Eau, the world’s tallest water fountain. A handy landmark, it makes exploring the shores of the lake and centre of the city easy in terms of navigation.
Stay & Eat: Hotel Les Armures is a five star hotel in a 17th century townhouse, mere steps away from John Calvin’s house, Jean- century townhouse, mere Jacques Rousseau’s house and museum, St Pierre Cathedral and the International Museum of the Reformation. Comfortable rooms with elegant bathrooms overlook the ancient surrounding streets. The restaurant is renowned for its fondue, available in several versions, and other Swiss specialities such as raclette.
With acknowledgement and thanks to: Julie Melet, Switzerland Tourism; Franziska Reisser, Graubünden Ferien; Caroline Melly, Geneva Tourism; Pascal Buchs, Geneva Tourism.