Old towns of Switzerland

Old towns of Switzerland
Photo Credit: Outlook Traveller
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Reaching serendipitous heights in sweet-natured Switzerland

Venky Vembu
April 06 , 2015
09 Min Read

For two days after I arrived in Zermatt — the Alpine town in southwestern Switzerland—the clinical, clockwork precision that the Swiss are renowned for was subjected to one of its sternest tests. The weather had turned a shade inclement, disrupting the planned-down-to-the-minute tour schedules, reducing the sweet-natured folks at Switzerland Tourism to an uncharacteristic mass of apologia. And although the alternative diversions that they lined up at short notice were sufficiently enlivening, the prospect of having to leave Zermatt without ever setting eyes on the region’s showpiece massif — the Matterhorn (4,478 metres), which is celebrating a milestone anniversary this year — proved to be a bit of a mood dampener.

For two days, as we loped gamely around Zermatt with the friskiness of the black-nosed sheep that dot the Valais canton’s hillsides, we would lift up our eyes from time to time to gaze forlornly in the general direction of the mountain that towers over the town like a presiding deity. But all we could see was a blanket of clouds, not the famed pyramidal peak that makes it the world’s most photographed mountain — and Switzerland’s most famous landmark.

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Gathering for sundowners on the terrace of Sunnegga Restaurant (altitude: 2,288 metres), we were greeted by a quartet of alphorn players. The evening was enchanting, and the music, which resonated off the surrounding hills, was melodious, but we couldn’t quite get the ‘money shot’ that would have truly uplifted our spirits: of the alphorn players framed against the majestic Matterhorn. The elements were clearly conspiring against us; we appeared fated to carry a Matterhorn-shaped hole in our hearts.

On the third morning, barely a couple of hours before we were to take the cog-wheel train out of Zermatt, I awoke at dawn to give Mother Nature one last chance to reveal her splendour. In the dim light, panting with excitement, I raced to a bridge near the town’s centre, from where the best views could be had of the Matterhorn. A knot of tourists from all over the world had already gathered there, gazing expectantly at the peak, still wrapped up in cloud blankets.

As the minutes ticked by, a hush descended on the crowd, as slowly but surely, the wispy cloud trails dispersed to reveal a sliver of the peak. And then, in a flash, two things happened simultaneously. The sun popped up over a distant horizon, and at that precise moment, the remaining cloud cover lifted up dramatically to reveal the Matterhorn, gleaming golden in the morning light. It was a wondrous sight, one that triggered a spontaneous, child-like ripple of applause from our gaggle of camera-wielding tourists. We had come from distant, diverse corners of the globe, but at this moment, we were united in a shared joy of nature’s elemental beauty, offered almost as a parting gift.

More such gifts were in store for me over the next few days, as I wound my way to the Interlaken region, and then on to Bern, the sun-dappled capital. Switzerland was evidently overcompensating me (weatherwise and otherwise) for the virtual wipeout of the first couple of days, and of course it was all gratifying in the extreme. And yet, for me, that moment when I stood gaping in awe at the glittering peak in the dawn light, was suffused with an inexplicable emotional resonance.

Come July, Zermatt will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the first ascent of the Matterhorn. Perhaps the well-roundedness of numbers invests them with exaggerated significance. In any case, it felt as if this Rock of Ages had, by revealing itself to me on the eve of its ‘born-again anniversary’, channelled an animistic blessing from the very beginning of Time.

Given Switzerland’s bounteous beauty, you don’t really have to take a slow train up a mountain — and then hike for close to two hours—to see yet more stunning sights. But that’s exactly what we did next, descending first to Spiez (elevation: 607 metres), on the shore of the picturesque Lake Thun (in the canton of Bern), and then taking the famed mountain railway to get up-close to the Bernese Oberland peaks. The Swiss mountain railways are a particular favourite of Bollywood film directors, and in fact in 2011, one of the mountain trains on the Jungfrau Railways was named after Yash Chopra, who has arguably done more than anyone else to popularise Switzerland as a tourism destination among Indian filmgoers.

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Disembarking at Schynige Platte station (altitude: 1,927 metres), we hiked on a panoramic trail, past lush green meadows with Alpine flowers (including the iconic edelweiss) to the Oberberghorn rock mass. To our left, for much of the way, Lake Brienz shimmered in the pre-noon sun, its waters a deep turquoise blue. Other smaller water bodies, their colours inexplicably varying across the spectrum from blue to green, bore psychedelic reflections of the surrounding peaks — the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau.

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It was, it appeared, rush hour on the hiking trail. The Swiss are a hardy, outdoor people, given to skiing, hiking and climbing — and to polite greetings of grüezi (‘hello’ in Swiss-German) to anyone they encounter on the trail. We gathered at journey’s end, to a profusion of grüezis, at the Oberberghorn rock mass, which affords a jaw-dropping 360Ë? vista of Alpine peaks. I gazed about me in sheer wonderment: it was the nearest thing to being in heaven.

The descent from that high note was somewhat rapid, and intensely sobering. Winding my way down to the Panorama Restaurant at Schynige Platte, I was greeted at the entrance by a couple who enticed me, in their sweet Swiss way, into trying my hand at playing the alphorn. Perhaps it was the heady exhilaration born of such awe-inspiring sights all around me, or maybe it was just my rash but sporting spirit that will try anything once, but I gamely stepped up.

“Purse your lips,” said the gentleman, by way of offering a crash tutorial. “Make as if you’re spitting something out.” Evidently satisfied with my demonstration of these first principles, he handed me the 3.5-metre-long wooden instrument, and asked me to give it a blast and summon the cows. But try as I might over the next ten minutes, I could coax not one musical note from the blessed thing. Swiss alphorns are set for F sharp/G flat; but in my untrained hands, the sound that emanated from the instrument resembled nothing so much as a Swiss cow in the throes of delirious passion. Acutely conscious that I had provided much merriment to the throng of onlookers, I retreated in shame, and sought solace in calorific excess. But that sense of shame was only compounded by the videos playing in the restaurant, of the alphorn jazz musician Eliana Burki who can, I’m told, play 11 notes on the instrument, including two so-called ‘God’s notes’. She’s also credited with ‘sexing up’ the unwieldy, rustic pipe and taking it to global audiences. Well, I guess Eliana will just have to get used to not having me around in the alphorn Hall of Fame…

Back in the Interlaken region, dinner that night was tinged with the sweet sorrow of imminent parting: we were to leave for Bern the next day, and then onward home. It was just as well that our alfresco seating at the Hotel Meielisalp’s restaurant, overlooking Lake Thun, afforded spectacular views that distracted sufficiently from the withdrawal pangs we were already susceptible to. The repast too was infused with soul, and it felt like we were seated around a family dining table: ‘grandmother’s salad’, bratwurst in onion sauce, rösti with vegetables, rounded off with homemade chocolate mousse. Our host, Stefan Otz of Interlaken Tourism, regaled us with stories calculated to bust prevailing myths about the stoic reserve of the Swiss. If that night had never ended, I reckon that no one around that table would have had any regrets.

Bern, basking in brilliant sunshine, was balm for the soul that yearns for more. The Swiss capital expanded the diversity of our experiences of this ethereally beautiful country, and while still charming in its own way, provided sufficient contrast to the vistas of the previous few days in Alpine country. A vintage car rally had rolled into town, and all over the city were folks dressed in period costumes; the stage was being set for a concert at the square in front of the federal parliament building. There was gaiety in the air, and it was highly infectious.

We sauntered through the city, and arrived at the Zytglogge, the clock tower that has stood testimony since the 13th century CE to Swiss precision and the country’s watchmaker heritage. We even crawled into the innards of the tower, to get a, um, second-hand look at the somewhat rudimentary, but flawless, clockwork mechanism. Wandering farther afield, we took in the quaint Old Town, a world heritage site that traces its history to the 12th century CE and injects a medieval touch to the modern world city.

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Our late-morning walkabout ended at Restaurant Rose Garden, located within the eponymous garden, home to some 220 varieties of roses, 200 types of irises and some 30 different varieties of rhododendrons. Over lunch — garden salad, whitefish fillet, vegetables — with a commanding view of Bern and a bend in the Arre River in our sights, we wallowed in shared reminiscences of the week gone by.

We weren’t, of course, the first travellers from faraway lands to lose our hearts in Switzerland; nor will we be the last. But the blessed country, this callous thief of hearts, also sends you home with more than you came with. All travel, it is true, is mind-expanding. But Switzerland effectively colonises your mind with the sheer breadth of its range of experiences, which are nearly as expansive as its Alpine panoramas. You can’t travel thither without being profoundly touched by a society that, for all its hypermodernity, lives in nature’s embrace, and whose pacific people reinforce your faith in the goodness of fellow-beings.


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