Tuesday 26 September 2017

Land of milk and money

Thomas Breathnach dips into in Switzerland's indulgent selection box of breathtaking scenery, charming towns, quirky adventure sports and, of course, a dairy-lover's heaven

The rolling landscapes of Gruyères
The rolling landscapes of Gruyères
Thomas Breathnach

Thomas Breathnach

Let's be frank -- Switzerland is expensive. No other country has developed a national brand so synonymous with luxury that many budget-conscious tourists consider its tightly controlled borders an automatic no-go.

Yet aside from having to pony up a little extra for that duty-free Toblerone, the Alpine nation offers good, if not great, value -- once you venture beyond its plush ski-resorts and the pricey gateways of Zurich and Geneva.

And so with a pep in my step and a limit on my credit card, I'm off with my friend Katie to the land of milk and money to bag a bargain slice of Helvetic heaven.

Our trail begins in French-speaking Fribourg, a two-hour slideshow of mesmerising mountain vistas from Geneva airport. We make our first stop in medieval Gruyères, home to its namesake cheese and HQ of Switzerland's original chocolate factory, the Maison Cailler.

It's dairy dreamland.

The car-free hamlet rests above a rocky outcrop, overlooks the lush Saane valley, and is guardedly surrounded by the jagged Dent de Broc and Dent du Chamois peaks. The village château, with its French gardens and Rapunzel turrets, caps off the fairytale setting.

For an ultra-agrarian experience, we've opted to stay at Ferme du Bourgoz, a stone chalet farmhouse nestled at the foothills of the village. Owner Elaine extends a warm welcome, along with her exquisite Bernese mountain dog, Oulan, named after the Mongolian capital (for reasons lost in translation). He's an immediate hit, but there's little time to mingle.

A dog of duty, it's time for Oulan to nine-to-five-it up at the family's mountain creamery, from which, as Elaine tells us, he saunters back down independently each evening like clockwork.

After settling into our loft room -- an airy provençal affair of lilac prints and yellow furnishings -- we're enticed to explore the mountains beyond our throw-open shutters. We begin our hike up the Gruyères 'cheese route', negotiating our way through turnstiles and dairy herds to the sounds of summer: cow bells ringing from the lush meadows, crickets humming from the saffron rape fields.

By the time we reach Moléson village at 1,100m, we've become fromage aficionados, with info signs revealing all the secrets which give the local cheese its nutty, flavoursome zing.

Tiny Moléson has a range of quirky pursuits, from downhill karting to mountain mini-golf, but we figure now's as good a time as any to try our hand at Alpine bob-sleighing.

After a succinct briefing on the mechanics of our luge, Katie and I are hauled up a winding track beneath a canopy of conifers. Being brakeman, that crucially timed release is down to me, and reaching the summit we're suddenly roller-coasting down a mountain track like Scalextric racers.

Verdant slopes and flora-splashed meadows hurtle around us, until 'boom!' We've just broken through the Heidi barrier.

That evening, as Oulan makes his way back down the valley, we stroll into Gruyères for the evening. It's all happening here. It's festival time and the village is in full medieval garb to celebrate its history.

We take a pew at Des Remparts restaurant (remparts-resto.com) on the town square, but such is the bookish nature of the Swiss, we're moved from our window seats for fear of getting a cost-free sconce of the local am-dram squad performing outside. Relocating to the balcony overlooking the castle ramparts wasn't the short straw however.

Backstage, a young mädchen puts her performing pet goat through a testing acrobatic repertoire. A dexterous display of tail-chasing and hind leg trotting -- had the lottery of life dealt this Alpine nation a greater appetite for reality TV, 'Kid-Squared' would surely prove runaway winners on Switzerland's Got Talent.

Their national dish, Rösti, is also one of the cheapest. My scrumptious serving with bacon lardons topped with a fried egg is washed down with a glass of local Dôle rouge (€15).

Following our meal, and so as to not disturb the show, we're dramatically whisked through the kitchen and ushered through a restaurant souterrain like a scene from 'On Her Majesty's Secret Service'. It's a case of merci, bonne chance, et bonne nuit.

The next morning, after a superb breakfast of farmhouse produce, we bid Oulan adieu and head for southern Switzerland's most happening hub -- Lausanne. The cosmopolitan city overlooking Lake Geneva is home to the Olympics, the Eurovision and Sepp Blatter. Mixed feelings all round then.

The highlight here is the gothic Cathédrale Notre-Dame , which is reached via a 400-year-old wooden staircase in the charming Ville Marché. Curiously, the cathedral retains Europe's last remaining church watchman. Known as le guet, his cry can still be heard at night time in the city, hollering the time from the belfry like a French listening-comprehension exercise.

To combine a Lake Geneva cruise with bargain lunch, we decide to grab a ferry across the lake to France and the bottled-water capital of Évian-les-Bains. The crossing is reminiscent of the Belle Époque -- our paddle steamer trawls across the lake towards the French Alps -- a flapping tricolore shades us from the afternoon rays.

Beyond the glitzy cypress-lined marina, Évian-les-Bains' old-town is a quaint network of sable-stoned façades, where we amble between antique stores, art studios and patisseries. On the pedestrian lane of Rue Nationale, we tuck into a divine lunch at Restaurant Entre Nous (restaurant-entre-nous.fr): smoked duck and melon with a mango sorbet starter, followed by mussels with frites (€23).

And there's just enough time to check out the Évian museum, which tracks the water's epic journey from glacial rock to refrigerators. You can even lap it up for free from the town's fountains.

That night we hit one of Switzerland's clubbing hot-spots, Màd (Moulin à Danse). Being a nation of some curious laws (it's illegal to keep guinea pigs in solitary confinement, par example) we put the local patrons' aversion to fun down to a possible Sunday moratorium on dancing.

Two-for-one Smirnoff Ices offer something of a silver lining, however.

The final leg of our journey takes us to lofty Caux, which we're using as our base to visit the jewel of the Swiss Riviera, Montreux. Our vintage train grinds up and down the mountain slopes as tunnels plunge the carriage into darkness like scenes from Hercule Poirot. Highways kiss the banks of the lake, trains coil and decoil as they descend into Montreux, where palm trees line the prom and crimson hibiscus dips into the lake.

Our visit here coincides with the Montreux Jazz festival, one of Europe's most prestigious music events which annually pulls in big guns to the ilk of Erykah Badu, Chaka Khan and the Black Eyed Peas. Concert tickets can be particularly pricey in Switzerland however, and, not wishing to relinquish €150 to see how Vanessa Paradis' career has evolved since 'Joe le Taxi', we stroll along the thronged promenades to soak up the atmosphere of the street performers instead.

Reclined on our balcony that night, gnawing on a nightcap of Lindt, we both surmised that Switzerland really is the box of chocolates where you'll always know what you're going to get. Top-class service regardless of budget, Brande Suisse excellence always seems to reign supreme.

The towns of Lake Geneva deep below were now glowing like kindling embers. It was dusk on the Riviera -- Oulan must be setting out for home about now.

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