Main Languages Spoken: German (Swiss German), Italian, French
Currency: Swiss franc (CHF)
Switzerland is renowned globally for watches, cheese, chocolate, fondue, precision, engineering, cows, milk, etc., but its primary attraction are its skiing slopes. Though tourists flock to Switzerland in winter, in summertime the slopes of the Alps transform into some of the most beautiful hikes ever. As I am about to leave for Germany, I felt that it would only be befitting to reminisce about this gorgeous country I have enjoyed for 4 years.
Switzerland has many beautiful villages, snuggled in valleys or tucked away high up in the mountains, each of them offering its own characteristics, but my top destinations are the Jungfrau region and Zermatt.:
The villages of Grindelwald, Wengen and Mürren in the Jungfrau region …..— Grindelwald is surrounded by lush, green meadows and famous for its outstanding views of Mount Eiger. The Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau are the famous trio of mountain peaks in the Jungfrau region and have attracted many tourists and mountaineers for years. To conquer the northern face of the Eiger, with its vertical drop of more than 1600 metres, has always been a dream for mountaineers across the world. Just outside the village is the Glacier Canyon (Gletscherschlucht), a deep gorge with the roaring Lutschine river flowing through it. The walkway made through the gorge, though seemingly treacherous, is an experience. The gorge was once a glacier. Over the decades all the ice has melted and has left behind this gorge and the river. Here are some great hikes that you can take from Grindelwald:
- Männlichen to Kleine Scheidegg is a fantastic hike — As the gondola drops you off at Männlichen, an incredibly beautiful panorama unfolds, the Grindelwald valley on one side and the snow peaks at eye level on the other side. After playing in the most unique play area we started our picturesque hike to Kleine Scheidegg. The route is called Panoramaweg. We completed the hike in about two hours and throughout this time we could see the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau right in front of us.
- First to Lake Bachalpsee — also accessible by a gondola from Grindelwald, this is also a great hike. All the way up you can see cows grazing at high altitudes and one can hear the cowbells throughout. First has loads of adventure activities, a kids play area and of course hiking options. The initial part of the hike is a bit steep and it takes about 1 hour to hike one way to the lake but is totally worth it. The glacial water lake hypnotises you with its beautiful setting amidst the snow clad Alps. While sitting in this heavenly place and enjoying picnic we heard the soothing music of an Alp(en)horn.
Wengen and Murren, two pedestrian villages can be accessed from Lauterbrunnen. These villages are at a high altitude and offer fantastic eye-level views of the snow caps. Wengen has a population of 1300 year round residents which swells to 5,000 in summer and 10,000 in winter! Wengen hosts the Lauterbrunnen ski races of the FIS Alpine Ski World Cup and is a very popular ski resort. Easily reached by a train ride from Lauterbrunnen, the best views are from the Wengen town church and the station. The pedestrian village of Murren is accessed by a gondola from Lauterbrunnen and then a short train ride. This 15-20 minute train ride has unparalleled views to any other train journey I have undertaken and passes through forests and snow peaks. One can also hike to Murren from Grutschalp instead of taking the train. The hike takes you through Alpine forests, a walk with the cows grazing right next to you, and a fabulous view the whole way through.
Another great destination in a different part of Switzerland is the pedestrian village of Zermatt. This village is famous for its views of the famed Matterhorn peak, which is the inspiration for the shape of the Toblerone chocolate. The Matterhorn, on the border of Switzerland and Italy, is a stand-alone and a perfect pyramid shaped mountain making it a spectacle. From Zermatt, the Gornergrat railway runs up to the Gorner glacier which offers panoramic view of the glacier and the surrounding mountains. On the way it stops at a small lake, which on a sunny day offers fantastic views of the Matterhorn, which is perfectly reflected in the lake.
While in Switzerland during the summer months, one must not miss the High Alpine Drive that passes through the Grimsel Pass and Furka Pass. Also a famous motorbiking route, it is only open in the summer months. The drive takes you through lakes, lush greenery, snow-capped peaks and glaciers on the way with ample opportunities to stop for picnics and photo shoots.
Here are some interesting records Switzerland holds, which corroborate the fact that Swiss engineering, when it comes to mountain transport is unbeatable.
Jungfraujoch — Highest railway station in Europe
Pilatusbahn — The steepest cogwheel train in the world.
Stoosbahn — The steepest funicular in the world.
Gotthard Tunnel — The longest (16 Km) and most expensive tunnel in the world.
For kids who love nature, Switzerland boasts a wide variety of unique things for kids do. Interlaken, a bustling, noisy town is outstanding if you want to paraglide and literally be ‘on top of the world’. You can paraglide here from the age of 5! Paragliding here is one of my most treasured experiences. From that height in the air you can see the two lakes Interlaken is flanked by— Brienz and Thun. Another fun experience is the Brunni Tickle Path. Here, you go barefoot around a small lake walking over different surfaces which include grass, wood, leaves, stones, cold water and even cow dung! You would want to do this loop again and again with your feet sensing different surfaces every one minute. Near the Tickle Path there is also a toboggan, and an interesting play area. Swimming in a pool is considered a norm, but how about if swimming in a lake is the norm during summers? In Switzerland, the Badi is the place you are looking for. They have great facilities, including restaurants, baby pools, waterslides and even three-meter diving-boards. They are the perfect place to cool down and have fun on those hot summer days.
Switzerland is a neutral country when it comes to military affairs. Swiss neutrality has been recognised ever since their devastating loss against France. Ever since then, the Swiss have maintained ‘armed neutrality’ which means that, although neutral about all military affairs, the Confederation Helvetica has a mandatory military training for all men from the age of 18 and requests them to serve the army for some period. This training is optional for women. The Swiss only joined the UN in 2002 and did not take any part in any of the World Wars. Switzerland also serves as a buffer state between Austria and France. Also, Switzerland is totally prepared for a nuclear war. They have enough nuclear shelters to accommodate their entire population. As a part of their defence strategy, in case of attack, the country’s main access points are wired to blow up at one moment’s notice.
Let me tell you another interesting fact about Switzerland. Did you know that it has highest per capita gun rate, and yet the least number of crime rate? Also, it is one of the only two countries in the world to have a square flag — the other is Vatican City. For those interested in Science, did you also know that Albert Einstein did a lot of his work in Bern, and that there is a museum dedicated to him in Old Town Bern?
Having been a part of Swiss culture and traditions for a few years, let me share some unique festivals they celebrate with tweaks to the festivals everyone is familiar with. To start with something everyone relates to — the festival of Christmas. As an integral part of this tradition, the Swiss make candles and sweet pastries called Grittibänz (which are shaped like gingerbread men). Christmas reminds most children of Santa, gifts, presents, happiness, family, chocolates but does it remind you of a sinister man, dressed in brown, who carries a stick to hit naughty children to get them back in line? Well, in Switzerland, Samichlaus (Santa), with his sinister sidekick Schmutzli go around to give children gifts. Schmutzli carries a stick to hit any naughty children. The gifts are not toys, instead there are sweet treats, nuts and fruits. Another festival, a unique turnip lantern festival, called Räbechilbi in which the Swiss carve turnips and walk around with candles inside the turnips after sunset in big groups. It is similar to pumpkin carving at Halloween. Most local schools have their children walk around in a big parade with an audience on the streets with the turnip lanterns which they carve at school. It is a big festival and people spend a lot of time decorating their turnips. In the summer, Swiss cows eat the lush grass of the Alps at high altitudes. But in the autumn, farmers bring their cows down in a massive festival, spectators on both sides. The cows are adorned on this day and are surely the centre of attraction.
Yodelling, which has inspired many singers world-wide, is a Swiss tradition, while the calm music of the alp(en)horn still can be heard, echoing across the Swiss mountains. The alphorn is a long instrument that reaches from your shoulder to the ground. It is curved at the bottom and makes a loud deep sound. Did you know that the alphorn used to be a way of communicating across mountains? For people who want to blow an alphorn and be a part of this Swiss tradition, Schynige Platte offers you that great experience.
And now a little something for our gourmets. At the mention of Swiss Gastronomy, two things come top of mind — cheese and chocolate. One of the most famous and typical Swiss cheese is Gruyere cheese. In the village of Gruyere, cheese factory tours are available to see the whole process of production. So it comes as no surprise that the Swiss gastronomic delights are also cheese based - the Fondue and Raclette. The typical fondue recipe uses the Gruyere cheese. Though the Aztecs invented chocolate (cocoa) the Swiss were the ones who conceived the idea of adding the milk to chocolate and popularising it globally. It’s chocolate brands like Lindt and Toblerone are renowned globally but if you are visiting this chocolate heaven, make sure you stop by at a Sprungli or Laderach outlet. These are handmade chocolates and exclusive brands only available in Switzerland (Zurich, Bern and Lucerne/Luzern mostly). Of course, being premium, there is a price tag attached to these brands but it is totally worth it! The options and aromas here will make you go crazy.
This country of about 1500 lakes, has idyllic settings and has no dearth of fantastic options. It is an Alpine beauty, offering you lush green mountains and meadows in the summer and a white wonderland during winters.