High and mighty

Switzer­land is the great­est of out­door ad­ven­tures

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - KEN­DALL HILL

Re­clin­ing on the sun­drenched ter­race of Mon­sieur Jac­ques Joly’s vil­lage winery at Grand­vaux, a glass of his Chas­se­las in hand and the silken blue of Lake Geneva all around, it’s easy to imag­ine why som­bre Zurich types re­fer to this re­gion as the Greece of Switzer­land.

It’s meant to be a crit­i­cism of the lo­cal fond­ness for wine and leisure but only a fool could find fault with life here among Lavaux’s ter­raced vine­yards.

The me­dieval wine­mak­ing vil­lages, the south-fac­ing slopes but­tressed by 400km of low stone walls, the ex­hil­a­rat­ing views across bound­less wa­ter to the French Alps, and Mon­sieur Joly’s light, lovely wines — which he in­sists are ideal for drink­ing “at all times of the day” — sug­gest the peo­ple of Vaud can­ton have la vie pretty much sorted.

It’s a con­vic­tion strength­ened over lunch at Tout Un Monde, a nearby res­tau­rant housed within the land­mark St Ni­co­las Tower, once a chapel and school. The din­ing room and bal­cony cap­ture sub­lime out­looks over Lavaux’s World Her­itage-listed wine ter­races that go very nicely with a crab brioche and a glass of Cotes des Ab­bayes Deza­ley Grand Cru.

The brioche is from Boulan­gerie Martin down the road and the wine is from Do­maine Blon­del in Cully, which is so close the waiter points out the rooftop of the wine­maker’s house from the res­tau­rant win­dows.

It’s re­as­sur­ing to learn these ter­races have been here since the 11th cen­tury, and the sur­round­ing nat­u­ral won­ders since shortly af­ter the last Ice Age thawed, and that the good peo­ple of Vaud have en­acted laws to pro­tect both from fur­ther de­vel­op­ment. They’re wise enough to re­alise that when you reach per­fec­tion, you stop.

By lunch’s end I’m ready to de­clare Switzer­land the most at­trac­tive coun­try I’ve ever seen, but that’s not a claim to make lightly or with­out proper in­ves­ti­ga­tion. So over sev­eral days I in­spect the Swiss Con­fed­er­a­tion from ev­ery an­gle — from air and wa­ter, from moun­tain­tops and emer­ald val­leys, from roads and hik­ing paths — to test the propo­si­tion.

At Mon­treux sta­tion I board the glass-cased ob­ser­va­tion cars of the Golden Pass tourist train for an ascent to the Swiss Alps.Thanks to an in­ge­nious de­sign that houses the driver in an up­stairs cock­pit, I can sit in the glass­walled nose of the train and view Switzer­land in the round as we spi­ral up­wards through vine­yards and vil­lages, pine and beech woods, past the 15th-cen­tury Chate­lard Cas­tle and through the 2.5km-long Ja­man tun­nel, to emerge into the Saane Val­ley. Just ahead lies my home for the night, the Val­rose Ho­tel at Rouge­mont.

To say the ho­tel is close to the train sta­tion is an un­der­state­ment. It vir­tu­ally is the train sta­tion. Pas­sen­gers wheel cases straight from rail­way plat­form to re­cep­tion and check in to chic chalet-style rooms where raw tim­bers meet furs and leathers and soft blan­kets strewn art- fully over puffy white bed linen. The view from my bal­cony is as pretty as a paint­ing; the icy peak of La Vide­manette soar­ing straight ahead, the Ro­manesque el­e­gance of Rouge­mont church to the right and train tracks di­rectly be­low.

At day­break next morn­ing it’s a short bus ride to Chateau D’Oex, a dairy farm­ing vil­lage of lush mead­ows and trim wooden chalets tanned to­bacco brown by the alpine sun. Bri­tish ac­tor David Niven, who pre­sum­ably could have cho­sen to live any­where on the planet, set­tled here and cher­ished it so much he never wanted to leave. His re­mains are in­terred at the lo­cal ceme­tery.

Niven, who played Phileas Fogg in the film ver­sion of Around the World in 80 Days, must have ap­pre­ci­ated the fact Chateau D’Oex is the world’s ho­tair bal­loon­ing cap­i­tal. It even hosts an an­nual fes­ti­val.

Bal­loon pi­lot Max Dun­comb is a mild-man­nered Cam­bridgeshire man who has flown in 32 coun­tries but claims this is his very favourite place to get high.

Our bal­loon is rain­bow striped and 32m tall when fully in­flated and drift­ing on a light northerly down the Saane Val­ley. Our airspace is book­ended by Mont Blanc and Jungfrau.

When we go high — up to 2600m — it’s pos­si­ble to see 90 per cent of the Alps’ high­est peaks ar­rayed in 360-de­gree grandeur. When we go low, cow­bells and bird­song ser­e­nade us from sto­ry­book set­tings.

I ask Max if he ever pon­ders the mean­ing of life while he’s gaz­ing down at this Gar­den of Eden. “Yes,” he says, “but I still haven’t worked it out yet. Per­haps in an­other 22 years.”

That af­ter­noon I’m air­borne again, this time in a gon­dola climb­ing from the shores of Lake Thun to the 1950m sum­mit of Mount Nieder­horn. At the top stands a sim­ple moun­tain inn — my lodg­ings for the night — and point­blank views to the Toblerone peaks of the Ber­nese Alps. A sight to thrill the senses, swell the heart and sug­gest that, when it comes to nat­u­ral beauty, Switzer­land re­ally is in a world of its own.

At dawn I hike up the Nieder­horn ridge guided by the fab­u­lously named Urs Gross­niklaus, who I swiftly chris­ten Bear. Our goal is to spot wildlife — we have some suc­cess with ibex and chamois cling­ing to pre­cip­i­tous ledges above 900m drops into the Justistal Val­ley — but the walk be­comes a med­i­ta­tion on the (oc­ca­sion­ally fa­tal) at­trac­tion of moun­tains. Es­pe­cially the way that, as English the­olo­gian Thomas Bur­net wrote, they “in­spire the mind

Lake Brienz, above; hik­ing up Mount Nieder­horn, top left; Tout Un Monde res­tau­rant, above left; church in Rouge­mont, above cen­tre; ibex, be­low

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