High and mighty
Switzerland is the greatest of outdoor adventures
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