Tag Archives: Switzerland

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Yodeling for more

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Yodeling for more

Alpine treasures in Switzerland

There’s nothing quite like the Alps, especially when the mountain range covers 60 per cent of the country, and the culture is built around it. The Swiss rail network makes it easy to travel around Switzerland, dropping you off at historical villages, ancient churches, vineyards, cable cars, sparkling lakes and magnificent restaurants.

Panorama Ridge Trail, Aletsch Glacier Photo By Kate Robertson

Castles and glaciers

Brig is an alpine town located close to the Italian border in the southern Swiss Alps, at the foot of the Simplon Pass. In the old quarter of town, wander the cobble-stoned streets to view historical buildings and the Stockalper Castle – one of the most important baroque palaces in Switzerland. Due to its physical characteristics, Brig was the site of the first man-made road in the Alps, so that Napoleon could move his armies.

Thousand-year-old church in Spiez.

To get out into the mountains, take the train to nearby Morel. From there, hop aboard the cable cars that will whisk you up to the viewpoint overlooking Aletsch Glacier. This is a river of ice that flows for more than 23 kilometres – the longest in the Alps.

Lausanne Cathedral

An easy hike back along the Panorama Ridge Trail will take you past lush grassy slopes that are dotted with wildflowers and grazing cows. There are plenty of benches to take a break and admire the snowcovered peaks in the distance. In Riederalp, before you catch the cable car down, enjoy lunch at Restaurant Derby. Order the schnitzel and a rivella – a beverage made from milk whey. The Hotel de Londres is a lovely place to stay when in Brig.

The painted portal at Lausanne Cathedral

Terraced beauty

Ask for a lake view room at Hotel de la Paix when in Lusanne to catch a glimpse of the dazzling Lake Geneva. With evidence of habitation dating back to 6,000 BC, Lausanne was originally settled by the Romans. Visit the 12th century gothic cathedral, and then stroll street-after-street of aged, red-roofed buildings and fine manor houses, and you’ll gain an appreciation for why this city has long-attracted artists and visitors.

For a different perspective of the Alps, and of France located across the lake, hop aboard one of Compagnie Generale de Navigation’s refurbished steam boats. While sailing, enjoy an aperol spritz as you tour past quaint villages, and the UNESCO vineyard terraces that date back to the 11th century.

Central square in Brig

Dip into fondue heaven

Despite its claim to fame for worldclass ski resorts, Gstaad exemplifies small village charm. Take a horsedrawn carriage ride through the alpine pastures of surrounding farms. Here, cheese is in abundance. To learn more about Swiss cheese making, and the cows’ yearly migration up to the Alps, join a group tour of the Cheese Grotto. Here, you’ll see where 3,000 wheels of cheese are stored – 25 metres underground.

Once above ground, you’re rewarded with the best part. Pick up a fondue backpack, with all the fixings, at the visitor’s centre. Then, make your way over to one of five specially-designed huts that were made to look like a giant fondue pot.

At Romantik Hotel Hornberg, located smack-dab in the centre of the alpine meadows, you’ll have the ultimate fondue experience. In a centuries-old alpine hut, a server dressed in traditional dirndl-style attire will serve you a meat and seafood fondue, followed by a Swiss chocolate fondue – the ambience is off the charts.

Horse carriage rides in Gstaad

Villages, views and vineyards

Grindelwald alpine village is located in the Bernese Oberland region. Hop on another cable car to take you to the First Cliff Walk – a metal suspension path that wraps around the mountains. Prepare for an adrenaline rush, as the trail culminates on a suspended glass observation deck that juts out 45 metres, providing stellar views of the valley below.

In Spiez, located next to Lake Thun, visit the 1,000-year-old church and adjacent Spiez Castle. The neighbouring vineyards contain 60 different grape varietals. Follow-up with a wine tasting at Spiezer Winery. The wine at the castle is aged in a centuries’ old wine cellar in the biggest oak barrels you’ve ever seen.

Aging barrels at Spiezer Winery, Spiez Castle

After a long day, check into Hotel Eden Spiez. Here, you can enjoy a spa experience, complete with an outdoor brine bath, a salt cave, saunas and steam baths before calling it a night.

Kate Robertson can be contacted at kateflyingsolo@gmail.com

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Skiers can’t pass up Switzerland’s Andermatt

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Skiers can’t pass up Switzerland’s Andermatt

By Marc Atchison

ANDERMATT, SWITZERLAND — I don’t give the bartender a chance to finish pouring my midday glass of wine before asking: “Which chair did Elvis sit on?” The congenial Swiss-American named Kevin, who has been asked the question countless times, surveys the crowded aprés ski bar he runs in the boutique Di Alt Apothek (River House) Hotel and points to a nondescript wooden bar stool with the faded green cushion where someone has discarded a backpack.

“That’s one of the three he sat on — the other two are being repaired right now,” says Kevin as he finishes pouring the remarkably good Swiss wine.

I quickly snap a picture of the “living memorial” to legendary rock star Elvis Presley, who stopped by the charming River House Hotel and Bar when he visited this fairytale Alpine village on several occasions.

“He (Elvis) first came to Andermatt when he was serving a stint with the U.S. Army in Germany (between 1958 and 1960),” Miriam Schuler, an official with the Andermatt Tourism Board tells me later. “And then he came back here with his daughter Lisa Marie when she was learning how to ski.”

Elvis isn’t the only entertainer who has walked the neatly-kept streets of Andermatt’s historic Old Town.

“Sean Connery also stayed in Andermatt when he was filming the James Bond movie Goldfinger (circa 1964) in the (nearby) Furka Pass. The scene where 007 fills up his Aston Martin was shot at the former gas station (now the Aurora Hotel) just down the street (from the River House Hotel),” Schuler tells me.

This idyllic 13th-century village, which sits cradled in the breathtaking Urseren Valley surrounded by jagged snow-capped peaks, is the perfect backdrop for a movie. It’s Hollywood good looks, Alpine charm and dramatic landscape make it one of the loveliest towns in Europe — a place of myths and magic — but it was off limits to tourists for many years.

“Andermatt was a Swiss Army base since World War II and the town relied heavily on the military for our survival,” says Schuler. “When they decided to close the base (around 2004), we all feared people would start moving away because there would be little work in the valley.”

That’s when an unlikely hero came to Andermatt’s rescue.

Enter Samih Sawiris. The Egyptian billionaire businessman, who developed the hugely successful El Gouna holiday resort on the Red Sea, was urged by a former Swiss ambassador to Egypt to fly over the Urseren Valley to see if he thought it had potential as a holiday resort.

It was love at first sight for Sawiris and he quickly committed his time, huge sums of money and his boundless energy to returning Andermatt to its tourist roots — from the middle of the 19th century to the beginning of World War II when the army arrived, the Urseren Valley was a hotspot for well-healed holidayers.

Andermatt is now a beehive of activity with workers hurriedly building six hotels, 42 apartment blocks and upwards of 30 luxury villas on the edge of the Old Town. When the new infrastructure is ready, Andermatt will become the largest ski resort in central Switzerland and a four-seasons destination thanks to its new 18-hole championship golf course, which was completed last year.

In all, the Egyptian businessman has invested 1.8 billion Swiss francs ($2.4 billion Cdn) and intends to spend another 130 million Swiss francs ($173 million Cdn) on connecting Andermatt’s world-class ski runs with neighbouring Sedrun, thus creating one of the most exciting venues for skiers in the world.

The crown jewel of Andermatt’s new hotels is the remarkable Chedi, a five-star wonder and member of the Swiss Deluxe Hotels group. The Chedi Andermatt, which opened in 2014, is situated within walking distance of the town’s lovely train station — it, too, will be updated as part of Andermatt’s renaissance — and lies just a few metres from the Gemsstock cable car.

The Alpine-style resort is a unique property with lots of Asian touches throughout its sleek interior. Those influences also flow into the oversized rooms and restaurants — the hotel’s Japanese dining room would not look out of place in Tokyo.

With 196 fireplaces and a world-class spa at the Chedi — the Thai word means temple or Buddhist stupa — there’s plenty of cozy places to warm up and relax after a day on the glorious ski slopes surrounding Andermatt. And Andermatt offers some of the most affordable skiing in Europe.

“A one-day ski pass in Andermatt costs about 51 Swiss francs (about $70 Cdn) and that’s a great value when compared to other popular ski resorts,” Schuler tells me as we pass the lovely Parish Church of St. Peter and Paul (circa 1602), whose steeple dominates the Old Town skyline. The tiny cemetery outside the church, which looks like it belongs in a Swiss fairytale, contains many of the original settlers of the Canton Uri, the county in which Andermatt is located.

Looking up into the mountains that surround Andermatt, I see the famed Swiss huts dotting the landscape. They are utilized during the summer months by the many hikers and climbers who invade the Urseren Valley. The handsome huts cling to the mountains and offer shelter and food to the hikers.

“We call the mountains here Swiss cheese because there are so many holes in them,” laughs Miriam. “When the army was here they dug tunnels in the mountains for security purposes.”

Being in the heart of the Alps, Andermatt is surrounded by famous mountain passes, which helped in the early development of the Urseren Valley. The roads that zig-zag through the passes are some of the most fun to drive in all of Europe. The Furka Pass, at 2,436 metres in elevation, was the one on which 007 (Sean Connery) raced the Mustang convertible, driven by a beautiful female lead, Tilly Masterson, in the Bond classic Goldfinger. Equally famous is the Gotthard Pass, which connects Italy with this amazing Swiss ski region.

“Milan is just a two-hour drive from Andermatt and many Italians come here to ski,” says my guide. “Andermatt was originally a trading post between Switzerland and Milan.”

The streets of the Old Town are lined with many handsome hotels and restaurants, all offering exceptional value and service. One of the loveliest on the cobbled main street is the Hotel zur Sonne, which, according to Miriam, “is owned and operated by an 80-year-old woman.”

The cozy Sonne is, like many of its neighbours, a timber-lined building whose peeked roof compliments the Alpine scenery surrounding this incredibly beautiful town of 1,300 permanent residents.

Everywhere you look in Andermatt, you see water.

Glacial streams cut through the Old Town and Miriam proudly tells me “Lake Toma, which sits above Andermatt, is the source of the Rhine,” Europe’s most important river.

“Andermatt is the water castle of Europe,” boasts the guide.

One of the most famous tourist spots in Andermatt is the remains of Devil’s Bridge, located a short drive from the centre of town. The legendary bridge, which hangs over the Schöllenen Gorge, has one of the region’s many mythical stories connected to it — it was reportedly built by Satan in just three days.

Devil’s Bridge was part of the original Gotthard coach road, which opened the region to the world. A famous battle between 40,000 French and Russian troops was apparently fought on the tiny bridge on Sept. 25 in 1799. Another myth?

One sure thing is that Andermatt’s future is as solid as the mountains that protect it. In the next few years, it will become a superstar of ski resorts. Elvis would be proud.

JUST THE FACTS

Marc Atchison is a veteran journalist and a seasoned traveller with more than 20 years of travel writing experience and is editor-in-chief and senior writer for TraveLife magazine (Canada) and http://www.travelife.ca/

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Glacier Express a frozen Swiss treat

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Glacier Express a frozen Swiss treat

By Marc Atchison
TraveLife Editor-in-Chief

ANDERMATT, SWITZERLAND — From my seat aboard the Glacier Express, I feel like I’m looking at an endless series of Giovanni Segantini paintings. The breathtaking Alpine pastoral landscapes that the legendary 19th-century Italian artist was so famous for painting are framed in my window as the scenic train slowly moves through the heart of the Swiss Alps.

I press my nose up against the window, awed by the natural beauty that so inspired Segantini. The only interruption is when the train enters one of the 91 tunnels located along the 291-kilometre route — day suddenly becomes night when the Glacier Express, billed as the “slowest express train in the world,” is swallowed up by the remarkable man-made mountain cavities.

Since boarding the train in St. Moritz, Switzerland’s winter wonderland for the wealthy, I’ve been overwhelmed by the breathtaking Alpine scenes and the service supplied by Glacier Express staff. They pour me beer made from the glacial waters I see streaming off the mountains in spectacular waterfalls, feed me regional cuisine using farm-to-table ingredients grown in the idyllic pastures that sit below the train tracks and educate me on the fascinating customs and traditions of the Alpine people.

I dart from one side of the panorama coach to the other so as not to miss any of the natural splendour passing by — the train travels at an average speed of 35 kilometres an hour so guests can feel the full impact of the Alps.

The most spectacular section of the trip is between Preda and Bergun, where the Glacier Express navigates six towering viaducts, three spiral tunnels and two helical tunnels that make it possible for the little red and white train to scale a height difference of 400 metres (1,300 feet). It’s no wonder this section has been recognized by UNESCO as one of its World Heritage Sites.

While the scenery leaves me breathless, the engineering feats needed the create this, one of the world’s truly great train routes, overwhelms me. There’s no better example of that than the 65-metre-high Landwasser Viaduct, one of the most photographed landmarks in Switzerland. The 142-metre-long (465 feet) stone bridge, which was completed in 1902, is supported by five arched walled pillars that rise from one of the route’s deepest gorges to allow the train to reach a tunnel of the same name. In all, there are 291 bridges along this fascinating route, which stretches from St. Moritz to Zermatt, where the mighty Matterhorn is located.

While the train proceeds, passengers listen to commentary on earphones supplied at each seat and learn that it took five years and over 5,000 men to build the line, which, at the time of its completion, was the most expensive railway project ever undertaken. The engineering achievements accomplished here were later used to build other great railways, like the Canadian Pacific, which united Canada from coast to coast.

During my four-hour journey, I’m entertained by eagles flying over the domed coach and I marvel at the serene Alpine villages and their neatly-kept shuttered homes that appear every so often. Equally impressive are the many jade-coloured lakes that are fed by glacial streams.

At times, the passages are so narrow I think my car will scrap up against the rock walls or fall off the narrow-gauge tracks into the abyss of the deep gorges. The train is most popular during the summer months but winter weekends can be hectic as well, according to the conductor.

Before we reach Andermatt, we pass some important towns and cities, like Chur (pronounced Coor), which is the oldest town in Switzerland with 5,000 years of history. Its Old Town is a great place to wander and the fact the Rhine River turns towards the north from here is another source of pride for the population.

This is also the area where the fictional character Heidi is from. Swiss author Johanna Spyri made Heidi famous in her late 18th-century books and the cute Alpine girl stills remains an iconic figure worldwide.

Shortly after we leave Chur, we enter the Rhine Gorge, which is often referred to as Switzerland’s Grand Canyon. Formed after the last Ice Age, the gorge offers some dramatic rock formations but until this part of the railway was finished in 1903, it remained inaccessible to tourists. The gorge is also home to 350 species of butterflies and rare wild orchids.

The Glacier Express slowly climbs out of the gorge and we start moving towards Disentis, the historic town that boasts the largest Romansh-speaking community in Switzerland. Romansh originates from the spoken Latin and was brought to Switzerland by Roman soldiers. Since 1938, it’s been recognized as one of the national languages of Switzerland.

The conductor tells me that most Swiss can speak German, French, Italian, English or Romansh. He also informs me that every Swiss citizen uses the country’s remarkable rail system — on average, each of the 8.4 million Swiss travel 2,300 kilometres by train each year. “That makes ours the densest rail system in the world,” he proudly boasts. “You’ll know we are getting close to Disentis when you see the double spires of the church,” he says.

The church, which is attached to the Disentis’s Benedictine monastery, dates back to 1683 and the abbey still remains one of the most prestigious schools in all of Switzerland. Being the first town on the Rhine River is also another thing the locals like to boast about.

Before heading into the spectacular Oberalppass, the engine is replaced with a much stronger one, but even with more horsepower, the Glacier Express still needs the assistance of a giant cog wheel — another engineering triumph of Swiss railway engineers — to reach the 2,033 metres (6,700 feet) above sea level that we’ll eventually climb before descending into Andermatt.

The Alpine scenery, which just a short time ago featured green meadows when we left Chur, is now snow white and as we climb higher, the drifts are as high as the coach window.

“We need very special snow trains to clear the tracks so the Glacier Express can keep moving through here,” says the conductor.

Soon after that, the Glacier Express pulls into lovely Andermatt, a 12th-century town that is being turned into Switzerland’s most modern ski resort, and the conductor bids me uf widerluege (goodbye).

My remarkable journey aboard the Glacier Express (it proceeds to Zermatt) is over but the memories of this trip though the majestic Swiss Alps will live on forever.

Information

The best way to get around Switzerland is by train. Swiss Travel System — http://www.myswitzerland.com/ — offers many options, including the Glacier

Marc Atchison is a veteran journalist and a seasoned traveller with more than 20 years of travel writing experience. As the former Travel Editor of the Toronto Star, Canada’s largest newspaper, and now editor-in-chief and senior writer for TraveLife magazine (Canada) and travelife.ca, Marc has been to over 100 countries in the world. Japan is one of his favourite destinations and he’s been there on numerous occasions. http://www.travelife.ca/

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A night to remember

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A night to remember

By Marc Atchison
TraveLife Editor-in-Chief

ZÜRICH — Out of the shadows of a darkened Old Town street walks a man wearing a black cape and tricorne. His face is gaunt, his skin a ghostly white. In one hand he carries a lamp. In the other, a long staff with a spear and axe affixed at the top. For a moment, his menacing appearance freezes me in my tracks. I look for an escape route.

“Hello,” shouts out the bearded man, “I am Martin, the night watchman. Are you the one I will be escorting tonight?”

Martin is one of two remaining night watchmen tour guides who educate visitors to his once time-honoured craft during night time walks of the historic Old Town. “There use to be 12 night watchmen in Zürich, but now there’s only two left,” says Martin, who tells me his lance is patterned after the one used by the Swiss Guards at the Vatican.

Martin is one of Zürich’s best ambassadors and his tours of the fascinating Old Town are sprinkled with lots of historical facts and some light-hearted humour.

As we make our way down a narrow cobblestone street next to the lovely Widder Hotel —made up of nine historic Old Town homes — Martin tells me night watchmen did far more than just light street lamps back before electricity was introduced to the city. “Zürich was a walled city in its earliest days and the gates would be closed and locked nightly at 9:30 sharp by the night watchman. God help you if you were locked out, because danger always lurked outside the gates.

“After the gates closed, the night watchman would patrol the streets looking out for crime and especially fires. Zürich once had seven gates and that’s why they needed so many night watchmen,” Martin smiles.

He tells me there were once 5,600 gas lanterns in Zürich and an army of men (“about 60”) worked alongside the night watchmen to help light the lamps each night.

“Electricity ended their jobs when the lamps were converted in 1890 and I remember it like it was yesterday,” says Martin, who always tries to stay in character.

Martin has become somewhat of a celebrity — Chinese tourists run up to him and take selfies during our walk — and says he enjoys meeting people from other countries. “Zürich has a great story to tell and I’m glad I’m the one telling it,” the night watchman says as we reach a lovely square dominated by St. Peter Church, one of four major churches in the Old Town. Grossmünster, Fraumünster and Predigerkirche are the others.

The impressive church, which was consecrated in 1706, is built on the former site of a Greek temple, which was later used by the Romans to build a castle.

Martin draws my attention to the clock tower and proudly tells me “the face of our clock is the widest in Europe — even bigger than London’s Big Ben.”

Martin says the clock tower is where one of the city’s night watchmen was stationed all the time “because he had a great view of the entire city and could spot a fire very quickly.”

As we make your way to the River Limmat, which cuts through the heart of Zürich, we’re entertained by a symphony of church bells.

“They ring every night at 7 p.m. and it is music to my ears,” says the charming man of a tradition that dates back centuries and is carried out each evening in most Swiss towns and villages.

When we reach the banks of the Limmat, a full moon dances on the calm waters and casts the Old Town in a mystical light. Lights twinkle on the opposite shore and lovers embrace on the benches that line the embankment.

Martin casts a pall on the romantic setting, though, when he tells me “this spot we are standing at is where a lot of lives were lost.

“Zürich, you see, was not always a nice city. In medieval times, people who were believed to be witches were thrown into the river from this spot.”

Oh, the story gets worse.

“When they tried to climb out of the river, men with long poles would push them under the water until they drowned.

“Also during those times, liars would have their tongues nailed to a board and thieves would have their fingers cut off,” a grim-faced Martin relates.

Zürich is far more welcoming now.

As we walk along the river’s edge, I notice a large number of fountains.

“The people of Zürich love their drinking fountains. In fact, there’s 1,227 scattered about the Old Town,” he says.

Along the river is also gathered some attractive medieval homes, which Martin says have become much sought-after addresses with the city’s well-to-do.

“Ironically,” Martin says, “these homes were built in the 14th century to house the poor and today they house some of the richest people in Zürich”

Many other European cities also boast night watchmen and Martin says he’s a proud member of the European Guild of Night Watchmen.

“The guild has 180 members from countries like England, Germany, France and Switzerland. We meet every year for a three-day conference and I especially like the guild meetings held in Scandinavian countries because they involve a lot of beer,” he laughs.

As we return to the Widder Hotel at the end of the tour, Martin leaves me with one last night watchman story:

“Night watchmen did not get paid much money for their work and were usually very poor,” he starts. “There’s a famous story of the kind people of ancient Zürich taking pity on one old toothless watchman. They contributed money so he could have dentures made.

“However, one night after the watchman was fitted for his new teeth, a lady noticed he was still walking around toothless. When he was asked why he was not wearing his new dentures, the night watchman replied, “Because the dentist told me to take them out and soak them in water overnight.’

“Guess you could say that story has no teeth,” Martin laughs as he disappears again into the darkness of night.

Information

The best way to get around Switzerland is by train. The Swiss Travel System offers many different train packages and has recently launched a new website — www.mystsnet.com/en/news/lancierung-mystsnetcom/ — where you can see all options.

Air Canada offers direct flights to Zürich from Toronto and Swiss International Air Lines — www.swiss.com — runs daily service to Zürich from Montreal.

Swiss Deluxe Hotels is a group representing 41 of Switzerland’s best hotels, including Zürich’s Widder Hotel, and offers unique experiences in some of the most visited places in Switzerland.

For information, go to www.swissdeluxehotels.com/en

For information on Switzerland and its many wonders, go to www.MySwitzerland.com.

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