International Travel

When you need more than a change of scenery

When you need more than a change of scenery

 Nurturing to the soul and satisfying to the eye, here’s why the beauty, sustainability, orderliness and safety of Switzerland are magnets for mature travellers.

I’ve just discovered two new words that describe me perfectly. The first is orophile, a lover of mountains. But I’m a certain type of orophile. It’s not enough for me to gaze in wonder at the objects of my adoration from afar – I want to be able to commune with them on an eye-to-summit basis.

That’s why I’ve fallen in love with Switzerland, where, a long time ago, the mountains got together and decided there was little point in being staggeringly-beautiful if no one could admire them close up.

Once the decision was made, Switzerland didn’t pussyfoot around with mere pathway-type access. They blasted tunnels in behemoths like the Bernese trio of the Eiger (3,970m), Mönch (4,099m) and Jungfrau (4,158m) to allow Europe’s highest railway station (3,454m) to be built – more than 100 years ago.

And drilled the 15km Gotthard tunnel through the alps in 1882, making mountain resorts like St Moritz and Zermatt accessible by rail.

And constructed Europe’s highest cablecar to the Klein Matterhorn (3,820m), where visitors can hobnob with the mighty Matterhorn (4,478m) and 20 peaks over 4,000 metres high.

And built the world’s longest aerial cablecar system to the Schilthorn summit where the iconic 007 movie, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, was filmed in the 1960s.

Then there’s walkways like the 107m-long Peak Walk at Les Diablerets, the only suspension bridge in the world to link two mountain summits.

The end product is accessibility on a grand scale to scores of mountain peaks, glaciers, alpine lakes, high-altitude villages and splendid hiking tracks with panoramas stretching across Switzerland.

I delight in the fact that I can arrive at Zurich Airport, jump on a train which, thanks to Switzerland’s superb transport system, connects seamlessly with buses, mountain trains, funiculars, gondolas and cablecars that whisk me to dizzy heights in minutes where I can hike, bike, ski and even wine, dine and sleep in fully-staffed lodges high in the alps.

In compact Switzerland, a country with the densest rail network in the world, no city is further than two hours from the mountains, so daytrips to the alps are easy. Around 9,000 trains criss-cross the 3,000km-long SBB railway network every day.

The timetables and station locations are synched in such a way that travel on multiple modes of transport is effortless. The first time I travelled in Switzerland, I was aghast when I looked at my itinerary, which involved four types of transport and four tight changes in four hours. But it was a breeze.

This ease of travel has much to do with an unassuming slip of paper called the Swiss Travel Pass  (STP), which I came to regard as magic. The pass allows unlimited travel on all public transport – trains, boats and buses – with no queuing for tickets or arguing with vending machines. The pass also allows free entry to more than 500 museums.

I always take full advantage of this, ducking into museums all over the country. A favourite is Zermatlantis, where I learned how the modest farming community of Zermatt became a world-famous resort.

The historic paddle steamers on Lake Geneva are also covered by the STP. These graceful belle époche vessels have plied the lake for 100 years, cruising the coast of the Montreux Riviera with its UNESCO World Heritage terraced vineyards at Lavaux, the fairytale mediaeval castle of Chillon and snow-capped Vaudois Alps.

STP holders qualify for a 50 percent discount off most mountain railways ,including the excursion to the summit of Titlis (3,062m) on the world’s first revolving aerial cableway. The panoramic views are jaw-dropping. There’s also the Titlis Cliff Walk – Europe’s highest suspension footbridge – and the Ice Flyer chairlift over Titlis glacier to Glacier Park. Here you can descend ten metres below the surface of the glacier where the ice is up to 5,000 years old. It’s astonishing.

In Switzerland, even the tiniest alpine communities are serviced by public transport. Bright yellow PostAuto buses are lined up beside train stations ready to take you to exquisite villages like Tschiertschen. And in Interlaken, you can ride on environmentally friendly e-buses powered by hydro-electricity. All covered by your STP.

Which brings me to the second word that describes me: I’m viridescent – turning green. The older I get, the more environmentally-conscious I become, which means I feel comfortable travelling in Switzerland. The country is a global leader in sustainability – a fact confirmed by the international Environmental Performance Index (EPI), which ranks Switzerland first in the world.

There are numerous examples of this. Rhaetian Railway, the operators of the world-famous Bernina Express, uses 100 percent hydro-power for their locomotives; the smooth, silent MobiCat on Lake Biel is solar-powered, transporting 40,000 people over 20,000km since 2001; and the Gornergrat Bahn in Zermatt ingeniously generates its own electricity. The energy for its ascents are generated by the descents. Built in 1898, it’s the world’s first fully electrified cog railway.

Furthermore, the entire 5,000km-long national and regional rail network is almost entirely electrified… so in Switzerland, I can indulge in another passion – train travel – with a clear conscience. A veteran of many train journeys in Switzerland, I’ve completed the Grand Train Tour of Switzerland in stages over the past six years. To undertake the entire 1,280km tour in one hit would be injurious to my health.

Every time I travel by train in Switzerland, I end up with a severe case of sensory overload… and a deformed nose from squashing it against the window for hours, drooling at the scenery.

However, after my all-time favourite trip – the Bernina Express from St Moritz to Tirano – my nose was fine. This was because I travelled in an open-air carriage for the entire four-hour journey from the alps and glaciers of Switzerland to the lakes and palm trees of Italy. One of many breath-taking sights is the spectacular, six-span, 142m-long, 65m-high curved Landwasser viaduct. Built in the early 1900s, the viaduct is a highlight of the UNESCO World Heritage 63km-long Albula sector of the trip.

Every journey in Switzerland has left me with a sense of wonder: horizons bristling with peaks jostling for supremacy; pastures so green I’ve rubbed the grass between my fingers to make sure it’s real; cows so pretty the farmers must surely shine their coats; alpine chalets competing for the most red geraniums in their window boxes; wispy waterfalls free-falling in tendrils from gleaming blue-white glaciers; picturesque villages perched on little ledges hundreds of metres above verdant valleys; vivid aqua alpine tarns surrounded by wild flowers; cable-cars bobbing between mountain peaks or gliding vertiginously up sheer cliffs; vineyards perched on narrow terraces that step their way up steep hillsides . . .

The countryside is deeply satisfying to the eye and profoundly nurturing to the soul. And in this chaotic world we live in, the beauty, sustainability, orderliness and safety of Switzerland are magnets for mature travellers… especially a viridescent orophile like me!

* Justine Tyerman travelled courtesy of Switzerland Tourism.