By Roger ALLNUTT
For a relatively small country landlocked Switzerland is the complete tourism package with fantastic mountain scenery, exciting cities, different cultures (French and German with a touch of Italian) and some of the most rewarding train journeys in the world. If it has a drawback it is an expensive place to visit – the financial gnomes of Zurich didn’t get rich without good reason.
For me the mountains are the main drawcard with some of the most famous alpine walking and skiing areas in the world. Matterhorn, Jungfrau, St Moritz, Davos – the list is endless.
My favourite is the Jungfrau region inland from the lovely town of Interlaken on Lake Thun. From Interlaken you catch the train to Grindelwald and then up to Kleine Scheidegg where you are greeted by the spectacular face of the Eiger and if lucky can see brave climbers hanging from the sheer face. Catch the railway up through the mountain to the Jungfraujoch at 3471m for breathtaking (literally as the rarified air needs to be respected) for magnificent vistas in all directions.
Come back down via Grindelwald and head for the Schilthorn the summit of which is reached by cable car – it featured in the James Bond film On His Majesty’s Secret Service. The top station is a favourite launching place for intrepid parachutists and sky divers.
The Matterhorn at 4478m is another enticing peak and possibly the most famous in the Alps. There are cog railways and cable cars to reach the many panoramic viewpoints (the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise is best).up from the swish resort town of Zermatt; the views are quite overwhelming If time is short just go as far as Gornergraat – still great views – and then take one of the many mountain bike and walking trails back to Zermatt.. Very expensive but on a clear day worth every dollar.
For a country famous for its timepieces it is not surprising that the railways run strictly to schedule. A Swiss Rail Pass is good value if planning to explore different areas of the country. There are some famous routes joining the main cities with key tourist attractions.
The Glacier Express is famous but a bit over hyped as its trip from Zermatt or Brig to St Moritz is mainly along valleys. To get to ultra-trendy St Moritz where the rich and famous have holidayed for decades. I suggest the shorter and more dramatic section from Chur. If you want to be ‘noticed’ stay at Badrutt’s Palace Hotel in St Moritz.
Chur (pronounced Koor) is the oldest city of Switzerland just over 2000 years since the Romans established a military outpost there. The old town area is very compact, a place of great atmosphere and round every corner of the narrow streets and alleyways you find beautifully restored buildings; one has the coats of arms of all the owners since the 16th century painted on the facade.
A quite different region of Switzerland is Ticino which shares borders with the more temperate climate of Italy. Locarno, Lugano and Bellinzona are especially attractive. At Bellinzona don’t miss the three UNESCO Heritage listed grey-stone medieval castles.
Most visitors arrive in Switzerland at one of the two major cities Zurich or Geneva. Zurich is the financial capital located along the banks of the River Limmat leading into Lake Zurich. The Bahnhofstrasse is the home of many banking and insurance giants as well as lots of expensive shopping boutiques selling high priced goods.
The old town is full of medieval buildings including a 12th century town hall, a Romanesque cathedral with two Gothic towers; not to be missed is a 9th century cathedral now featuring windows by Marc Chagall from 1970.
Zurich is only about 20km from the medieval town of Schaffhausen close to the German border and then a short ride to the Rhine Falls, only 23m high but Europe’s highest. Also worth visiting in the area is Lake Constance.
Personally I prefer Geneva at the French end of Switzerland and very much an international city as the European headquarters of the United Nations is located there (previously used by the League of Nations) as well as a number of other international organisations (eg Red Cross).
The city spreads out along the banks of Lac Leman (also known as Lake Geneva) and the city centre is bisected by the River Rhone. A lovely promenade skirts the edge of the lake for many kilometres with gardens providing a wealth of colour.
In the Jardin Anglais near the point where the Rhone leaves the lake is a large floral clock; but undoubtedly the best known feature of the lake is the water jet (Jet d’Eau) which shoots up a jet of water during the day and is illuminated at night. However if there is any wind which might cause spray to wet pedestrians on the shore it is turned off so always take a photo when you see it in operation. Large marinas along the foreshore are crammed with expensive boats of all kinds; many of them look as though they never leave their mooring.
The old town is small and very compact and best explored on foot. Start at the Pont du Mont Blanc from where on a clear day you can see Mont Blanc poking up many kilometres away. On the adjacent bridge Pont des Bergues an historic building La Cite du Temps has exhibitions focussing on the world of time and includes a permanent exhibition of Swatch watches from their beginning in 1982 to the present time. Entry is free.
Also free is the Maison Tavel, the oldest remaining (14th century) residential building in Geneva and now a museum which, among many important historic items, houses on its top floor a detailed relief model of the old town as it was in the 1850s. Across the street is the ancient Arsenal (1630) which coontains genuine cannons from the 17th and 18th centuries and has three large murals depicting the entry of Julius Caesar into Geneva.
Hour long tours are available of the UN Headquarters but check times as they vary during the year and you need personal identification to get in (eg passport). The gates were shut when I arrived but you can see all the country flags on flagpoles through the main gate. Outside the gate in the Place de Nations is a very moving 12m high wooden sculpture of a chair with a broken leg symbolising the destruction caused by land mines and cluster bombs.
Geneva is at the western end of Lac Leman. The northern side in Switzerland has a number of interesting cities that are great to visit. Lausanne is well known as the headquarters of the International Olympic Committee (visit the Musee Olympique) while further along Montreux (it holds a wonderful jazz festival each July) is close to the imposing Chateau de Chillon right on the water’s edge. There is a lovely promenade walk along the lake near Montreux and Vevey with many fine mansions reflecting the general wealth of Switzerland.
Only opened in April this year is the new Charlie Chaplin Museum in Vevey in renovated Manoir de Ban which ws the private residence of Chaplinfor the last 25 years of his life. The museum provides visitors an insight into the professional and personal life of the man himself.
There are other lovely cities in Switzerland including Basel, the capital Bern, and Lucerne. Each of these cities has wonderful old town precincts with narrow streets and ornate buildings and they are great to wander around on foot.
The symbol of Bern is the bear and the iconic bears have a new spacious home at the riverside Barengraben. Art lovers will revel in the collection of works by Paul Klee at the centre with his name.
One of my favourite cities is Lucerne on the deep cobalt coloured lake of the same name. Devastated by fire in 1993 the old (1333) Kapellbrucke (Chapel Bridge) has been restored to its former glory. With its distinctive water tower in the middle it diagonally straddles the River Reuss. A magical sight.
Best time to visit: unless you are going skiing May to September is ideal.
Getting there: there are no direct flights from Australia to Switzerland but many airlines provide access through Asian and Middle Eastern hubs.
Cars for rent and lease are available from Driveaway Holidays at www.driveaway.com.au
If planning to visit more than one country, I would recommend a Rail Europe Pass from www.raileurope.com.au