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Travel & Holiday

On the trail of Swiss bliss

Go on a hike and reflect on life among the breathtaking peaks and scenery of Switzerland
The Straits Times - September 13, 2011
By: Huang Huifen
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On the trail of Swiss bliss Hikers at Leysin in Canton Vaud. The massif of the 3178m high Dents du Midi can be seen in the background, -- PHOTO: SWISSIMAGE. CH/ROBERT BOESCH

Hiking in the Swiss Alps may seem like a daunting task, especially for a hiking novice like me.

But on a hiking trip to the Bernese Alps and Alps in the Lake Geneva Region two weeks ago, I discovered that it was easier than expected.

Switzerland offers many hiking trails that total 63,992km in distance, so it should not be difficult for travellers to find one that suits their abilities without breaking too much of a sweat - or limb, for that matter.

It also helps that the hiking trails and Alps are well-connected by trains and cableways, bringing hikers to the starting point of their trails or straight to the mountain peaks.

A good place for novices to start would be the Jungfraujoch, a mountain station nestled between the three peaks Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau in the Bernese Alps, a group of mountain ridges in the western Alps of Switzerland. Jungfraujoch is also known as the Top of Europe because at 3,454m, it is the highest altitude railway station in the continent.

To get to Jungfraujoch, it is a two- hour-plus rail journey that requires changing trains twice.

My journey started at Interlaken, the tourist gateway to the Bernese Alps where I took two trains to get to Kleine Scheidegg, a mountain pass at the foot of Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau mountains.

From there, the journey continued on another train, the Jungfrau Railway (www.jungfrau.ch), and that was when it got exciting.

The cogwheel train takes travellers through a 7,207m-long tunnel built through the rocks of the Eiger and Monch, and makes two stops along the way to help people adjust to the thinning air as the altitude changes.

The first stop is at Eigerwand tunnel station look-out point where, on a clear day, one can get a bird's eye view of Grindelwald Valley, and as far as Germany's Black Forest and the Vosges in France.

Unfortunately, on the day that I was there, clouds shrouded my view.

The stop lasts five minutes before everyone re-boards and continues on the slow ascent to the 3,158m-high Eismeer tunnel station.

The Eismeer is another look-out point to the lower Grindewald glacier and Fiescher glacier, with the 4,078m Schreckhorn looming in the background. The Schreckhorn is another mountain peak in the Bernese Alps.

From there, the train continues until it reaches Jungfraujoch.

That is where I began my two-hour hike. Even though it was summer, the temperature in the mountains was minus 2 deg C, so I had to put on a thick winter jacket and scarf.

I chose to go on a 2km hike on the icy piste that is perpendicular to the 23km- long Aletsch glacier. The glacier is the longest in the Alps and a Unesco World Heritage Site.

The piste is made up of a series of gentle slopes, snaking past the Aletsch glacier and giving hikers a clear view of the Bernese Alps.

The trail I went on is accessible to tourists only in the summer. The hike was not as tiring as I had expected. Being surrounded by the mountains and breathing in the crisp air was serene, and even the voices of enthusiastic tourists having their pictures taken against the magnificent backdrop of the Aletsch glacier seemed like white noise.

The hike along the piste ends at the Monchsjoch Hut, Switzerland's highest- altitude hut built into the walls of the 4,107m Monch mountain.

Located at 3,658m, it houses a cafe, toilets and lodging, and serves as a resting point for hikers. One can refuel with hot chocolate and snacks while admiring striking views of the mountains and glacier.

Hiking in the summer also means there is more to do other than just hiking up snow-capped mountains.

I took a slightly over two hour-long journey from Interlaken to Vevey, a town in the Lake Geneva Region located in the French-speaking Canton Vaud, from where I hiked up the Swiss Prealps to gather wild plants and paraglided across the mountain ranges.

The region is known as the Mirror of Switzerland because it consists of all the parts that make up Switzerland - mountains, lakeside cities, countryside and the Jura, a forested mountain range.

In summer, the sunkissed region is popular for outdoor activities such as hiking to gather wild plants and paragliding.

Ms Marie-Joseph Capitanio (tel: +41-76-365-7767, majocap@hotmail. com, tours at 300 Swiss franc (S$418) a day), a wild plants guide for 15 years, took a group of us journalists on a hike to Les Pleiades, part of the Alps of the Lake Geneva Region, to gather edible wild plants such as allium ursinum (wild garlic) and dandelion for dessert on the peak.

Not all wild plants there are edible, so it is advisable to go with a guide if you want to sample the plants.

The 45-minute easy uphill hike in the lush forest lined with fir and cedar trees rewards hikers with stunning views of the snow-capped Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps.

Flying across the valleys

At Les Pleiades, Ms Capitanio sliced the wild plants, disinfected them with vinegar water, mixed them into a bottle of cream cheese and spread the mix on slices of bread.

One of the members of the group, Russian journalist Anna Basyrova, said it tasted like 'cheese with grass' but I found the blend very palatable as the plants masked the strong smell of the cheese.

There are hiking trails for wine lovers too. The Wine Train (www.lake-geneva- region.ch) takes hikers from Vevey to Chexbres in Lavaux, which is a Unesco World Heritage Site since 2007.

There, one can hike up terraced vineyards for wine tastings at winegrower cellars such as Au Clos de la Republique (Ruelle du Petit-Cret, Epesses, tel: +41-21-799-1444, www.patrick-fonjallaz.ch.

A 1? hour wine-tasting session costs about 25 Swiss franc, open from Tuesday to Saturday), the oldest family- owned winegrowing business in Switzerland for wine-tasting.

The wine of the region is made of Chasselas grapes, and tastes fruity and slightly more acidic compared to other grapes.

The terraced vineyards, a 30km stretch of slopes facing Lake Geneva, were constructed by monks from Christian monasteries between the 11th and 14th century.

Given the relatively easy hikes, the most exhilarating part of the trip was on the final fourth day, when I had the chance to paraglide from the 2,048m La Berneuse mountain in Leysin, a village south-east of Vevey.

To reach the peak of La Berneuse, we hiked for about two hours before taking a cableway ride up to the peak.

Wearing a helmet and windbreaker to protect against the strong winds, I was strapped in tandem to the pilot from Pan-Pam Airlines (www.panpam.ch, a 20-minute tandem flight costs 150 Swiss franc), who sat behind me to steer the parachute-like wing.

Any fear of heights was swept away as I soared across the valleys dotted with Swiss chalets and took in the breathtaking views of the Alps in the horizon.

I could not imagine a better way of bidding farewell to the Alps.

The writer's trip was sponsored by Switzerland Tourism.

GOOD FOOD AND LODGINGS

Where to stay
INTERLAKEN
Victoria-Jungfrau Grand Hotel & Spa
(Hoheweg 41, tel: +41-33-828-2828, www.victoria-jungfrau.ch), a five-star historical hotel offering stunning views of Interlaken and Jungfrau. Rates start from 378.10 Swiss franc (S$524) for a superior double room.

Backpackers can try Balmer's (Hauptstrasse 23, tel: +41-33-822-1961, www.balmers.com), a hostel with private rooms, dormitories, guesthouses and outdoor tents. Rates start from 28.50 Swiss franc a person a night in a dormitory room.

LAKE GENEVA REGION (Vevey) Hotel des Trois Couronnes (Rue d'Italie 49, tel. +41-21-923-3200, www.hotel3couronnes.ch), a luxury hotel on the banks of Lake Geneva. Rates start from 460 Swiss franc a night for a superior double room with a city view.

Elisabeth & Jean-Pierre Narbel (Chemin des Arquebusiers 20, tel: +41-21-921-5210, www.bnb.ch), a cosy bed and breakfast. Rates start from 50 Swiss franc a night a person for a single room.

LEYSIN
Hotel Central-Residence
(Route De Belvedere 1854, tel: +41-24-493-0707, www.bonellihotels.ch) offers rooms facing the mountains with rates starting from 90 Swiss franc a person a night in a basic-tier room.

Where to eat

INTERLAKEN
Restaurant Laterne
(Familie Kaufmann-Matzener, Obere Bonigstrasse 18, tel: +41-33-822-1141, www.restaurant-laterne.ch) offers authentic Swiss food in a cosy chalet setting. It is a 20-minute walk from the main tourist stretch, but it is well worth the effort, judging by the number of locals there at lunch time. Try the rosti served with sausages and side salad for 15 Swiss franc.

LAKE GENEVA REGION
(Near Les Pleiades)
H?tel-Restaurant Les Sapins
(Route de Lally 103, tel: +41-21-943-1395, www.les-sapins.ch) at Lally train station near Vevey is known for its menu featuring wild plants from the area. Owner Agnes Mazur picks wild plants from areas within 2km from the hotel. Summer treats include an appetiser of wild plants terrine with wild spinach, nettles, wild garlic and snakeweed. The main course is rosti and chicken with mountain herbs sauce and cream. Complete the meal with homemade ice parfait with a syrup made from pine tree leaves. A three-course meal costs 45 Swiss franc.

LEYSIN
La Fromagerie
(Rue du Village, tel: +41-24-494-2205, www.lafromagerie.ch) is a historic restaurant and museum that serves delicious cheese fondue and meringues. Do visit the museum on the second floor, which is a reconstruction of a traditional 18th-century Swiss chalet home.

GETTING THERE

Singapore Airlines operates daily direct flights to Zurich. Swiss International Air Lines flies daily from Singapore to Zurich, with either a connection in Bangkok, or a code-shared direct flight.

From Zurich, take a three-hour train to Interlaken. Go to www.sbb.ch for more information, including transfers to the Lake Geneva Region.

5 things to do

1 Do dress in your winter wear and hiking boots to the Jungfraujoch as temperatures can plunge to below freezing even in the summer. Even if you are not going up the mountains, it is advisable to bring along a warm sweater or waterproof jacket. It can get chilly at night, with temperatures ranging from 9 to 11 deg C.

2 Take slow, deep breaths and walk slowly at the Jungfraujoch as the air is thinner and you may be hit by altitude sickness. Do prepare some remedies such as SOS Rescue, Globuli, Dr Bach and Dextro Energy, which can help relieve altitude sickness and boost energy. They can be bought from drugstores such as Impuls Drogerie and Dropa Drogerie in Interlaken.

3 Do visit the Jungfraujoch next April when the Jungfrau Railway celebrates its centenary with the opening of a 250m-long subway that links the Sphinx Hall, a research station and observatory terrace, directly to the Ice Palace, a tourist attraction made of ice sculptures in the Jungfraujoch.

4 Be on time for the trains as they arrive and leave on the dot. The same goes for any meetings with the Swiss as they are very punctual. For train travel, get the Swiss Pass (www.swisstravelsystem.ch), which allows unlimited travel on all public transport systems in the country and up to 50 per cent discount on most mountain railways and cableways.

5 Do check out details on 440 hikes such as the Lavaux wine trails, Aletsch glacier trails and family- friendly hiking trails at yswitzerland.com/hiking. Download myswitzerland.com/mobile, an iPhone app that can be used offline to get detailed maps on the top 32 hikes. The best time to hike is from May to June, when the flowers bloom, and the weather is warm and sunny.

2 don'ts

1 Do not litter as the Swiss are very protective of their environment.

2 Do not go on a diet when in Switzerland, as you will be missing out on the famous cheese, chocolates, sausages and rosti.

 

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