Susie Oliver, Back-Roads' Product Development Manager tells us about her recent experience in Switzerland whilst researching our new Winter tour....
Thinking of Switzerland in the winter as only snow -filled, is something of a misnomer. Yes the Alps in all their majestic glory with most cities and towns are steeped in snow. However; areas such as the deep valleys get very little snow and some not at all. For those who want to visit the snow, but not be “in” it all the time, this country allows them to enjoy the best of both worlds.
Switzerland being such a compact country makes visiting all areas easily accessible. No matter where you go however, you are always surrounded by the Alps in all their magnificence.
One of the nicest things to do in winter is visit the different Christmas Markets. Each one different and unique in its own way. Those special hand-made items, mulled wine, the smell of gingerbread and roasted chestnuts. It all adds to the ambience. One of the largest is in the city of Bern at the Chateau de Chillon. Over a 1000 years old and located right on Lake Lucerne, you can’t ask for a more perfect setting to indulge in some well-deserved shopping. Don’t worry however, if you don’t get your fill of shopping or forgot to buy someone a gift, there are plenty more Christmas Markets to be found. Another one is in the city of Lucerne. ‘Dressed-up’ for the season and located in the old city square along the river with the Alps as a backdrop, it brings a magical quality and excitement to the place.
So much to see and so little time is how I would describe Switzerland. For history buffs, you have over 100 castles/chateaus and ancient ruins.
One such place is the Chateau du Gruyere which is actually a castle with a very small medieval town “attached” to it. Sitting high upon a hill over -looking a beautiful valley, it’s something you might imagine a fairy-tale castle looking like with its turrets and cobblestone paths. Built in 1270, it houses some impressive pieces of art and furniture, and offers guests a short film about its history. If you are a history buff and love architecture, this is a dream of a building. The little village just outside the gates is very pretty with its cobblestone streets and fountains. It houses mostly restaurants which all seem to have a fantastic view of the countryside and of course your ever-present gift shops. There is a very “unusual” museum and bar located just outside the gates of the chateau. The museum showcases a variety of creatures in a mythical-magical universe by artist HR Giger. The Ginger Bar opposite the museum represents the artist’s most beautiful works of art in its seating. So while enjoying that pint, you’re sitting on a work of art! Open year round. Christmas at the Castle is from November 19 to January 8 which will showcase nativity scenes from Austria and South Tyrol.
Located down the hill from the Chateau du Gruyere is, you guessed it, La Maison Du Gruyere cheese dairy. For cheese lovers, (of which I am one) there are several dairies which not only show you how this delectable morsel is made but some even allow you to make your own to be consumed on site or shipped home at a later date once it’s aged. Emmentaler or Swiss cheese is of course the most well-known and widely used in fondues. This particular dairy however makes the Gruyere or soft cheese. I thought it was unique in that as soon as you walk in the door, you can see the storage and aging of all the cheese before you even walk on the tour. The tour demonstrates how the cheese is made and processed. Afterwards, you have the opportunity to taste the cheese and of course buy some. The dairy houses a restaurant and menu that caters to all food types. It also has a very well stocked and varied gift store. Can you ever have enough cheese to eat?
My cable ride up to the top of Mount Titlis was breath-taking along with being one of the most thrilling “rides” I had ever been on. It takes 3 cable car rides to get to the top, the 1st one being the most dare I say, scariest? Yours truly is definitely not afraid of heights but traveling up in almost a vertical position you try not to think about the fact that you are suspended on only 2 cables. After white-knuckling it and looking at the passing scenery with only one eye open, you reach the 1st summit. After what you just experience, the remaining 2 cable car rides to the top, will seem like a piece of cake! The last one is actually the most exciting since at the last 600 meters, the gondola “revolves” in a 360 degree turn. Ah! you’ve made it to the top! You feel like a pro! That is, until you have to go back down again. But for now, your mind is catching your breath (it is pretty high up at 9742 ft.) and taking in the spectacular views of Jungfrau and the Matterhorn along with the cities of Zurich and Basel on a clear day. I loved watching some of the fearless skiers skiing down the slopes. If you feel daring, you can ride the glacier chair lift over the glacier crevasses on the Titlis and the 350-meter long circular tour through the glacier grotto. Then there’s time out for a bite to eat or to warm up with cup of hot chocolate in the Panorama Restaurant. Refreshed and sated, it’s time to gather that courage for that ride back down the mountain. To break up the ride down, stop off on the 2nd cable car down, at the summit or Little Titlis and take a walk on the observation lounge/sun terrace to get a different perspective of the views. Ok, time for that final decent down. I have to admit it wasn’t as bad as going up. This time I decided to be brave and kept my eyes open and stood right against the window. I even took a picture of the decent all the while still white-knuckling it. Once I reached the bottom and was on level ground, I almost jumped up and down and yelled “I did it”! I didn’t really, but felt like it!
What would visiting Switzerland be without trying the Chocolate! A visit to “Schoggiland” and the Maestrani Chocolate Factory is a definite must. Upon arriving, the scent of chocolate fills the air! Maestrani himself had a wonderful quote, ‘he who sees the world through the eyes of a chocolate lover will find real beauty and enjoyment’. He wasn’t kidding. Any chocolate lover can attest to that! The tour itself is pretty interesting but of course the best part and the piece de la resistance. Chocolate. Lots of it. Yours for the tasting. That saying “kid in a candy store” comes to mind immediately. I found it hard not to sample each and every one. As you exit out of the building, with chocolate in hand, you can’t help but feel extremely fulfilled.
My Swiss experience would not be complete without experiencing what the Swiss are known for world-wide: Cheese Fondues. Could anything be any yummier? The Swiss definitely know how to make it. Emmentaler or Swiss Cheese as it more commonly known and perhaps mixed with some schnapps? Dipping bread in this incredibly tasting mixture is pure pleasure. Add a small salad, glass of wine or beer and you have the perfect meal!
Would I go back and visit Switzerland in the winter? In a heartbeat.
If you would like to visit Switzerland join Back-Roads Touring on their new Swiss Alpine Explorer Tour departing 05 Nov 2011 - 7 Mar 2012.