Saturday 25 November 2017

Switzerland: Go on, take a peak

Cleo Murphy breathes in the fabulous Swiss mountain air and sublime views

The classic Alpine scenery of Lake
Lucerne. Photo courtesy of Swiss tourism
The classic Alpine scenery of Lake Lucerne. Photo courtesy of Swiss tourism
The Pilatus funicular is the world's steepest rack railway system. Photo courtesy of Swiss tourism
Hungry hikers are in for a treat in the Swiss mountains. Photo courtesy of Swiss tourism

Cleo Murphy

As the snow recedes from the lower slopes of the Swiss Alps, it gives way to lush green meadows of long grass and wild flowers.

There are forests and pathways, waterfalls and streams; towering above it all are the imposing peaks, which remain snow-capped and breathtaking. Cows return to graze on these wonderful pastures in spring, giving Swiss farmers the basics for their famous cheeses and milk chocolate.

And, yes, the cows do have bells around their necks. The occasional clanging is a musical backdrop to any day out on the lower slopes.

Switzerland in early summer is all about the outdoors. The high hills are ideal for walking, cycling, climbing and horse riding. Mountains never fail to give you that feeling of being exalted, of wanting to throw your arms back and take a lungful of clean, fresh air and an eyeful of the panoramic views below you.

With such a buzz around activity holidays, the Swiss are designating much of their magnificent landscape as national parkland.

Nine new nature parks were opened last year and 15pc of the country is now under environmental protection of some level. The residents of an area have to vote to become part of a nature park, conscious of the restrictions on architecture, planning and lifestyle that it will place upon them.

It's typical of the democracy that underpins neutral, independent Switzerland. This tiny country has a powerful image, yet is a curious mixture of cultures. They are divided by the German, French and Italian languages, but bound together by mountainous terrain.

You could say they are the mountain people of Europe, yodelling from peak to peak, herding cows, making cheese and chasing Heidi -- but try applying that stereotype to the sophisticated, urbane populations of Zurich or Geneva, where banks, medical clinics, design studios and engineering firms run like their legendary clockwork.

And yet it is the mountain and valley topography that has shaped the Swiss mindset of independence born of isolation. If necessity is the mother of invention it accounts for how the Swiss, devoid of easy access to their neighbours, became masters at doing it for themselves.

Cold nights and hard winters on the Alps, for example, gave rise to culinary creativity. Bread that quickly went stale was brought back to life with the fondue, a pot of melted cheese with a measure of kirsch, kept warm with a flame beneath. The cheese too was hardening as the winter wore on and the fondue was the perfect method of using limited rations to their best advantage.

A raclette involved cutting a 6kg wheel of cheese in half, holding it against the fire and scraping off the melted bits to serve with small potatoes and pickled gherkins -- another winter tradition.

The word 'raclette' means a 'scraping', and eventually the word gave its name to the cheese. Today these great traditional dishes are on most restaurant menus, so daytime activity in the great outdoors is essential to work up an appetite and work off the pounds.

Among the nine new nature parks is the Unesco Biosphere of Entlebuch between Bern and Lucerne. When the idea of creating a biosphere at Entlebuch was first mooted in 1987 the suggestion that wolves and lynx would be protected was met with uproar from farmers, and so far 300 of them have received compensation after their animals were killed by wolves. The Capricorn goat was another rare species worthy of nurturing and 250 of them are now being farmed at Entlebuch for cheesemaking.

Entlebuch comprises 400sq km of pre-Alpine moor and karst, which is home to unique flora and fauna within Switzerland. It uses its clear, cold mountain waters in an open-air spa based on the Kneipp principles.

Sebastian Kneipp was a Bavarian priest of the 19th century who discovered the healing power of water. These days we take the energising nature of showers for granted, but Kneipp was just discovering that the application of cold water to the body doesn't half revitalise you.

In Entlebuch, they have recreated Kneipp's outdoor spa with cold spring water in which to immerse parts of your body one at a time; complete de-robing is not required.

After the steep hike to get there (which the Swiss describe as a gentle stroll), the experience is certainly refreshing and you would take off your hat to the man who made the water connection, but you would be well advised to put it back on quickly to avoid the mountain sunburn.

Swiss summers are gloriously warm and winters are not as cold as they used to be. This is all too clear as the glaciers begin to slowly retreat. The Aletsch glacier in the Valais region is one of the many slipping back millimetre by millimetre in the glow of global warming.

Aletsch glacier is so high that cable cars take you up to Riederalp, Bettmeralp or Fiescheralp to the lookout points over the glacier. In the distance are the high peaks of Aletschhorn, Jungfrau and the Eiger.

And soaring peaks are what Switzerland is all about. Even in summer the cold, crisp air and the remaining snow on the peaks are sharp and uplifting. The ease of access and the facilities are surprising.

Cables and funiculars make the ascent possible for everyone. It is of course cheating -- real mountaineers do it the hard way -- but the experience of standing on the mountain top is there for the taking no matter what your level of fitness.

Mount Pilatus, outside Lucerne, is a particular thrill. You can begin the journey on a steamboat through Lake Lucerne to the drop-off point of Alpnachstad then ascend the mountain on a funicular ride, which must rank as one of the world's great journeys by rail or cable.

The full-service restaurant at the top does a great Sunday brunch where you occasionally get an alpine-horn player or two. It's an instrument which sounds its finest at high altitude. A cable car is then waiting to take you back down the other side of the mountain, right into Lucerne.

Glacier 3000, near Gstaad, offers an even faster thrill -- the Alpine Coaster, which is a bobsleigh track in the snow. For those who don't want to master skiing but fancy the feeling of whizzing down the slopes all the same, this is great fun.

If you'd just prefer to stay at the top and have coffee at the Botta restaurant (designed by architect Mario Botta) you'll be rewarded with views of the Jungfrau, Matterhorn and Mont Blanc.

Nature's offering to Switzerland has been magnificent and her people are mindful of the need to appreciate and maintain it, not least so that visitors can access this wonderful part of Europe.

Irish Independent

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