Soaring some 10,000 feet above the nearest cliff edge, the spectacular viewing platform on Gornergrat peak reveals one of the most breathtaking vistas in Europe. For the past few days, I’ve been shuttling up and down some of the world’s steepest, highest, ice-tipped mountains, conveyed by some amazing feats of engineering that only the Swiss could have created.
The narrow-gauge cog railway at Jungfrau climbs up steep, cliff-hanging pathways and through almost vertical tunnels carved through solid stone to reach Europe’s highest train station at Jungfraujoch (3,454 meters). The multi-platform Sunnegga funicular speeds upwards through the inside of the mountain on the edge of the famed ski resort of Zermatt. It’s in Zermatt that this year the Swiss celebrate the 150th anniversary of the first ascent of the Matterhorn (4,478 meters), the iconic, craggy monolith that points skyward towards the heavens. I’m mesmerized by this Alp-studded, cheese-and-chocolate obsessed country. After being overwhelmed by my ascent of some of the world’s tallest mountains, many piercing the cloud cover still heavy with snow and ice, I head lower to sunnier climes in the French-speaking canton of Vaux. The township of Vevey, set on the tranquil banks of Lake Geneva, is lesser known than the chic, neighbouring resort of Montreux, but is noted as the place where milk chocolate was invented in 1875, and as the international headquarters of Nestlé (which has an incredible Culinary Museum, the Alimentarium).
In the heat of the summer sun, we’re taken to the summit of Riex, a small mountaintop village overlooking the steep Lavaux Vineyard Terrace that slopes down to the water’s edge and the charming town of Cully. Although it’s well into the balmy 20s, we’re at the Café Restaurant de la Tour de Gourze, an intimate family run-chalet that specializes in the ubiquitous Swiss dish of cheese fondue. The elixir of aromatic local cheeses melted with white wine and a hint of kirsch, served with miniature pitchforks for swirling chunks of crusty country loaf into the bubbling cheese lava, is cheeseful bliss, no matter what the temperature is outside! Recipes vary from region to region; here fondue is paired with platters of cornichons, pickled onions and translucent slices of Bündnerfleisch, wonderful air- cured beef, akin to jerky. Days earlier at the summit of the Sunnegga in Zermatt, I feasted on that other famous Swiss dish, Raclette. The pungent semi-firm cow’s milk cheese, typically fashioned in rounds, is melted, scraped off and served as a garnish for steamed baby potatoes, dried meats and cornichons. I was feeling the effect of the high dairy fat oozing from my pores, but that was only the beginning!
After our calorie-intense lunch, we hike downwards along narrow pathways traversing steeply terraced vineyards filled with summer growth. This UNESCO protected region stretches for some 30 kilometers along the northern shores of Lake Geneva, from the eastern outskirts of Lausanne to the west of Vevey. Evidence shows that vines were grown in the area during Roman times, while the present terraces can be traced to the 11th century, when Benedictine and Cistercian monasteries controlled the area. This historic region is known for crisp, white Chasselas (with its elegant aromas of lemon peel and fresh pears) and stunning lakeside landscapes, two qualities that reach their mutual zenith in the grand crus of Dezaley and Calamin reds.
Our final evening in Vevey we dine on the elegant garden terrace of the Hôtel des Trois Couronnes set on Lake Geneva’s edge. The hotel received its first Michelin star in 2013 and Chef Lionel Rodriquez prepares for us an exquisite menu of whitefish tartare with lemon and basil, delicate grilled sea bream, and a summery parfait of fragrant strawberries and lemon balm. Leaving Vevey, I make a quick stop in Lausanne, renowned not only for its international hotel schools, but also as the headquarters of the International Olympic Committee. It’s also home to the newly renovated Olympic museum, filled with high-tech exhibits showcasing anything and everything about Olympic history, from participating countries to medal designs, and the various costumes that were designed for the host cities. It was heartwarming to see my hometown Vancouver’s involvement in the 2010 Winter Gamesand to watch all the video clips. Who could forget that patriotic gold-winning hockey game?
Like Swiss watches, the Swiss train system works with precision. I travel to Fribourg, which borders the Swiss-German region of this multi-lingual country. Situated on the Sarine river, this delightful city is an immaculately preserved Gothic town, complete with city walls that date from the Middle Ages. Arriving in the midst of the weekly market, I’m taken in by the vast cornucopia of fresh local produce, regional breads, berries, wines, sausages and the massive and solid wheels of Gruyère cheese.
A short 45-minute drive south from Fribourg through lush summer valleys brings us to Charmey, the heartland of aromatic, flavourful Gruyère. A little beyond this beautiful town (also known for its natural mineral baths), is Les Invuettes, a country chalet located in the Gros Mont Valley. Gérard Biland comes from a long line of artisan fromagers, who produce not only the famed cheese of the region, but also the sublime Vacherin, and the creamy, washed-rind Tomme. Eschewing mass production, Biland uses traditional methods to make Gruyère. He heats some 330 litres of raw whole milk (which in turn becomes a 30-kilogram wheel of cheese) in a copper vat over wood coals, and curdles it with rennet. The pea–sized curds are strained and placed into large molds to be pressed.
After a quick swim in brine and spraying with bacteria, the rounds are allowed to sit in atmosphere-controlled rooms to cure. After 3 to 12 months (or longer for aged), this AOC (Appelation d’Origine Contrôlée) fromage becomes the base of many a luscious fondue, a bubbling crust for French onion soups, and a classic pairing with earthy, smoked ham in a butter-kissed, toasted Croque-Monsieur.
Back in Fribourg, at the historic Belle Époque Café du Gothard, near the town’s statuesque Gothic Cathedral, I bypass the over-hearty offerings of fondues and charcuterie-platters laden with sausages and smoked bacon, for an equally heavy plate of rösti, the popular hash of shredded potato, skillet-fried in butter. Mine is smothered with caramelized onions, minced sausage and a generous top of melting cheese. Before I depart, I experience the Michelin excellence of Des Trois Tours, set in a magnificent 19th-century mansion with an intimate sculpture garden. I’m entranced by Chef Alain Bächler’s brilliant seasonal menu. Seared foie gras sandwiched between thin crisps of nougatine is flawless. A salmon confit sprinkled with aromatic espelette pepper is divine, followed by a tartin of heirloom tomatoes and Brittany lobster. I’m wondering when this restaurant will be crowned with another star.
Onwards to the Swiss capital, Bern, and the neoclassic Hotel Bellevue Palace, terraced above the rolling River Aare. With its stunning stained glass dome and gilt-polished lobby, I imagine the elegance of an earlier era — the porte cochère lined with varnished horse-drawn carriages brimming with Louis Vuitton trunks, rather than today’s parked foreign cars. It was a hardship leaving my sumptuous suite overlooking the flowing river and the grandiose vista of the Bernese Alps beyond. Bern, overshadowed by the more tourist-driven cities of Geneva and Zurich, has a classic medieval old town, which was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1983. Besides its elaborate 15th-century cathedral and Town Hall, the city’s most famous sight is probably the Zytglogge, an elaborate clock tower with moving puppets that give a particularly special fanfare when the bell chimes every hour. Given a private tour of the interior working movements, I was impressed by the original ironworks that still tick slowly throughout the tower.
In contrast to the old town’s architecture is the curved, sweeping design of Renzo Piano’s flowing Zentrum Paul Klee. Built in 2005, this marvel of steel, concrete and glass embedded in the grassy hills on the edge of the city, houses the world’s most important collection of this renowned Swiss-German artist. From artists to scientists — Bern was also the home for Albert Einstein who wrote his Theory of Relativity here from 1903 to 1905.
Like France, Switzerland has a cornucopia of cheeses but none is as famous as Emmental. Typically known simply as ‘Swiss Cheese,’ this yellow, medium-hard cheese is known for its holes, caused by bacteria that release carbon dioxide bubbles while the cheese is aging. Christian Billau, head of Emmental Tourism, takes me on a fascinating cheese tour through the lush green countryside. I eventually find out that Emmental is the largest cheese wheel in the world, with some 1,200 litres of whole milk used to create a 100-kilogram wheel. Newly launched is the region’s kaeseroute, where you can rent e-bikes and cycle your way through this exciting dairy region, tasting and learning about Emmental along the way. This intimate country, locked in the middle of Europe, is a mélange of old and new, and of cultures, from French and Italian to German and the unique Romansh. It’s not just the famous chocolate and cheeses, but also regional specialties like Bern’s Lebkuchen spice cake and braided Zopf bread, or Fribourg’s saffron bread and Vin Cuit (cooked pear juice), that make me long to return to the glorious and humble tables of Switzerland.