If you’re a speed fanatic, you may as well give Switzerland a pass and head to Germany instead. “Locals head for the autobahn just across the border—they can’t zip these here,” says Lucas Huck. We’ve just rolled into the tiny resort village of Ascona in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino, where cobblestoned thoroughfares and centuries-old Renaissance-style houses share space with Ferraris, Maseratis and Porsches. A Monaco-like feel, if you will: the kind of place where a Lamborghini purrs by on a medieval promenade, its low rumble just audible above conversations emanating from the restaurants facing the lake.
Huck—a twenty-something Masters student from Lucerne—and I are supping at the Osteria Nostrana, at the Piazza, facing Lake Maggiore. “There aren’t any racetracks in Switzerland either,” he adds. “I think it’s because we don’t want to encourage any reckless behaviour on the roads.” Given that—and the all-pervasive speed limits—the sheer ubiquity of supercars in Ascona, or for that matter in all the Swiss cities Huck and I have driven through, is quite astonishing.
Ascona is our penultimate pit-stop on a road trip that began 11 days and 850 kilometres back in Geneva and will end the next day in the city of Lugano. Along the way we’ve wound our way through mountain roads to the Alpine resort town of St. Moritz; clambered down into a subterranean cheese grotto in Gstaad; gaped at Chinese tourists walking out of Interlaken’s high-end watch and fashion boutiques with shopping bags in tow; chugged our way up to the highest train station in the world at Jungfraujoch; relaxed in a hot-water pool which draws water from a natural geyser in a luxury resort in Bad Ragaz; gorged on fondue in Lucerne; shopped in Zurich; befriended a cat on a meadow in St. Gallen; had a veritable feast a stone’s throw from the summit of the highest peak in the Eastern Alps (Piz Bernina); and stopped for grand repasts at some extraordinary restaurants. I suspect my hosts—Swiss Tourism and Cox & Kings—on being informed that I hadn’t been to the country before, connived to put together as expansive a smorgasbord of Swiss experiences as they could conjure. No coincidence though: ‘The Grand Tour of Switzerland’ is what the tourism board is promoting in 2015—and you can do it by using public transport with a Swiss Travel Pass or by road. And that’s what we’ve embarked upon.
The Lake Geneva region is as good a place to start on a road trip in this country; there’s a stunning mix of hill and coastal roads that wind along the shores of Lake Geneva passing through vineyards, villages with Baroque-style citadels and outstanding restaurants. One such gem, hidden in a corner of the village of Epesses is the Auberge du Vigneron—where we’re served fresh fish from the lake and braised patties of Tomme cheese for lunch. “Don’t worry about the calories, you will burn it off with your yoga!” says Lorena Scamara, a wild-eyed Montreux girl who’s showing us around. Scamara is perplexed when informed that not all Indians practice yoga; by her own admission, she’s “not too bad,” and does an extreme version of vrikshasana till her shin touches her forehead. Scamara drives the familiar Suzuki Swift, but prefers her bicycle for runabouts in town.
Driving doesn’t seem to be a very popular recreational activity here. No matter which city we passed through, we saw people walking, taking trams, boarding buses, and getting onto trains and boats. They do drive, but less than they cycle, and much less than they walk—and if they could, they’d just like to ski everywhere: downhill, cross-country, slalom, you name it.
We’re the only non-skiers in the cable car to Piz Bernina (4049 mts)—the highest peak in the Eastern Alps— which is full of entire families. A Swiss family day out appears to be all about getting out there and hitting the slopes. “I practice draughts on my phone, whenever I’m free,” says the cable-car operator—a gray-haired man who’s had enough of the spectacular views. Last year he was ranked in the top-200 in the board game’s world rankings. That’s his thing. Everyone in Switzerland, it seems, has a ‘thing.’ What Joseph Campbell called ‘following your bliss’ is in ample evidence here.
Like Nadine Degen, a millennial and a Bern resident who, along with a few friends, took over a defunct distillery and brews beer in her spare time. The Wabräu micro-brewery has become so popular that there’s not enough ale to go around on the weekends—the only days it’s open. “We don’t want to make more beer, or work harder, or make this into some sort of a big business,“ says Degen while pouring us mugs of her dark wheat quaff. “This isn’t our day job, it’s what we do for fun, and it would change in character if it became more than that.“ How does one measure quality of life? Ask the Swiss.
Crazy traffic,” says Huck, visibly agitated, as we enter Bern. The Swiss capital does have more vehicles on the road—a bit like Delhi on an early Sunday morning. Huck’s obviously never been to Asia, but he has studied in the United States and travelled all over Europe. “The trouble with being born and brought up in Switzerland is that when you travel, you end up wondering what’s wrong with the world,” he says as we pull into an exorbitantly priced parking lot in Bern (parking rates differ by location and can go up to as much as CHF7-8 per hour). It’s not difficult to fathom why he feels like that: the sense of order, civility, near-perfect infrastructure and citizenry that unfailingly plays by the rules, is par for the course in this country. It helps that Switzerland hasn’t been ravaged by any wars in the last half millennia; per capita income and life expectancy are amongst the highest in the world; and it’s emerged largely unscathed by the financial crisis that has Europe on edge.
On the road to Lucerne, there’s no scope for indulging in any puerile fascination with speed. Anywhere in the country for that matter, speed limits are strictly enforced: typically 120kmph on the motorway; 60-80kmph on smaller roads; and 40kmph within cities and when you’re passing through villages. Doing 120kmph on a motorway feels way more sedate than doing half that on a scenic country road and that—along with the gorgeous landscape and scenes of local life—make the latter a much more rewarding proposition. Lucerne has a real holiday feel, with a lovely lake, supercars zipping around and roadside cafés brimming with folk soaking in the sun. As far as picturesque drives go, it’s nigh impossible to rank one over the other in Switzerland. But the mountain dashes up to the village of Gstaad, or to glitzy St. Moritz, are most fun simply because the speed limits are high enough to have a go at the twisties. Gstaad itself is literally a village that transforms into a buzzing resort town in the winter months. A surfeit of gentle and difficult slopes (and everything in between), make it one of the country’s top winter sport destinations. Of course, if you’re a Bollywood star, you come here just for the anonymity: Saif Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor—who reportedly own a chalet here—are known to pop by on long weekends.
Switzerland is everything it’s cracked up to be: stunning even by European standards and ultra-sanitised to the extent that you can pretty much drink water from anywhere—the streams, the lakes, or the tap in the loo. And while a drive is a great way to get an overview of the country, it’s the outdoorsy stuff in which the fun really lies. In St. Gallen, for example, you can rent a cycle, and, over four days, do a loop around Lake Constance pedalling through parts of Austria, Germany and Liechtenstein.
We did nothing of the sort, and after ten days on the road, entered Ascona—a village that’s perfect for winding down after a hectic trip. In fact, even if I’d had a say in the itinerary, the slightly laidback Ticino—and our stops in the canton: Locarno, Alcona and Lugano—would still have been the perfect exit line from Switzerland. Ticino residents don’t take well to being compared to Italians—it’s almost a slur. But I certainly don’t mean it as one: the canton has taken the best from both cultures. Public transport runs on time and Swiss efficiency is in evidence everywhere, but there’s an unmistakable easygoing vibe that you won’t find elsewhere in Switzerland. While the Swiss could never be called stiff, they loosen their ties a bit more easily in Ticino.
A ‘Grand Tour’ of Switzerland, needs months if you ask me, or anyone whose notion of travel involves immersion and time. I would certainly not recommend driving through eight Swiss cities in 11 days, but if you must fit in an inordinate number of cities, sights and activities into a short time, then driving is certainly the most convenient way to do it. Do consider the trains, though—the few places those can’t take you to are accessible via cable-car transfers. If you can, stick to one canton, and explore the landscape like the Swiss do—on foot or a bicycle. With all that cheese, you’re going to need the workout.
Getting there: Most international carriers operate one- and two-stop flights (from Rs 23,000) to Swiss cities from India. Only SWISS (www.swiss.com) and Air India (www.airindia.in) operate non-stop flights (from Rs 35,000) from Delhi and Mumbai to Zurich.
Visa: A Swiss Schengen Visa is required for Indian nationals. Application forms can be downloaded from www.vfsglobal.ch/switzerland/india and submitted at a VFS Centre.
Currency: 1 Swiss Franc (CHF) = Rs 68
The grand tour: A fantastic way to get an overview of Switzerland, encompassing major cities and lots of smaller towns and villages along the way. Consider the entire itinerary if you’ve got at least a fortnight, else pick and choose a region or two (www.grandtraintour.swisstravelsystem.com). Cox & Kings (www.coxandkings.com) put my trip together end-to-end and offers two options: by train (Rs 1,52,500; 12D/11N) and self-drive (Rs 1,25,000; 6D/5N; mid-sized sedan). The rates include car rental, air tickets and visa charges.
Getting around: If you’re planning a road trip, Europcar (www.europcar.com) and Hertz(www.hertz.com) have the biggest network in Switzerland. Expect to pay in the region of CHF100 onwards a day for a hatchback, going up to twice as much for a luxury sedan. An Indian driving licence is valid as long as it’s in English; you will also need travel insurance cover that includes road accidents to rent a car. The Swiss Travel Pass (CHF440; valid for 15 days; www.swisstravelsystem.com) gets you access to all trains, buses and boats, including scenic train routes such as the Glacier Express, Bernina Express, Golden Pass Line or Wilhelm Tell Express. It’s also vaild for public transport within cities.
Where to stay: We scrimped on hotels and ate at fancy restaurants. Some like The Steigenberger Alpenhotel and Spa (from CHF118; www.gstaad-saanen.steigenberger.ch) in Gstaad were fantastic. Interlaken’s Goldy Hotel (from CHF130; www.goldey.ch) with its basic rooms seems like a cheapie until you see the tariff—Interlaken is expensive even by Swiss standards. At Bad Ragaz, the place to stay is the Grand Resort (from CHF400; www.resortragaz.ch). We stayed at the more modest but lovely Sorell Hotel Tamina (from CHF140; www.hoteltamina.ch) in the town centre.
Where to eat: The Auberge du Vigneron (www.aubergeduvigneron.ch) in Epesses village on the banks of Lake Geneva is worth driving to even if it’s not on your route. To taste the finest Alpine cheese, head to the Molkerei Gstaad (www.molkerei-gstaad.ch).
The Granary (www.kornhauskeller.ch) in Bern is as much a national monument as a restaurant; order the famous Bernese Platter and admire the striking Münger frescos while you wait.
The Restaurant Hiltl (www.hiltl.ch) in Zurich claims to be the oldest (estd.1898) vegetarian restaurant in the world; you’ll even find Indian food if you’re craving for some.For a meal steeped in history, try the Zürcher Geschnetzeltes (sliced meat in gravy) at the Zunfthaus zur Waag (www.zunfthaus-zur-waag.ch).
The Excursion Restaurant (+41-71-222-2934) set on a remote meadow in St. Gallen is worth going to just for the location, if not for the Ravioli.
You can’t miss the Osteria Nostrana (+41-91-791-5158) at the Piazza in Ascona, and the outdoor seating area is perfect for people-watching.
In Lugano, take a boat ride to Caprino and have lunch by the lakeside at the lovely Grotto S. Rocco (www.grottosanrocco.ch).
You must binge on fondue at least once on your trip, and there’s no better place to do that than the Fondue House (www.fondue-house.ch) in Lucerne.
TOP TIP: If you’re planning to drive, consider getting an international licence before you leave, especially if you intend to rent a high-end car. Europcar insisted on one before letting us rent an Audi A8. On the road you’ll get comfortable with driving on the right soon enough, but pay special attention at the roundabouts—taking them the other way around is quite tricky.