French, German, Italian… Switzerland is a sum of all these and then some. Experience the picture-postcard country differently—hit the roads, traverse incredible landscapes, and explore the food, wine, and way of life of three regions through three unique activities. By Satarupa Paul
“Bonjour monsieur, which way is the railway station?”
The farmers looked up from their tasks and studied me curiously. Beyond them, endless swathes of green rolled down the hillside to the edge of Lake Geneva, its stunning blue blinding in the afternoon sun. The homogeneity of the landscape was punctuated with red-roofed farmhouses, the grey of a winding road, and the white of a train snaking far below. These were the picture-postcard UNESCO-listed vineyards of Lavaux, in the francophone southwest region of Switzerland, and I was happily lost.
Stretching over 30 kilometres, these vineyards cover an area of 800 hectares, from the medieval fortress of Château de Chillon in Montreux to the outskirts of Lausanne. The entire stretch is well connected by rail, but the real thrill lies in exploring Lavaux by road, especially on a bicycle. You may choose the easy path that runs along the waterfront, which you can traverse in just two hours. Or, you can make a full-day cycling excursion via the paved, well-marked, and scenic Route de la Corniche—winding through the vineyards and villages, sometimes hugging the lake shore, at other times disappearing behind trees and thickets up in the hills.
It was in the 11th century that these hillsides, then under the Benedictine and Cistercian monasteries, were turned from woodlands into productive vineyards. Today, the region is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with terraces rising over 40 levels and 335 metres above the magnificent Lake Geneva, and constituting some of the steepest vineyards in the world. With no irrigation and hardly any chemicals, Lavaux produces artisanal batches of a variety of whites and reds. The Pinot Noir and Chardonnay aside, the most popular grape variety is Chasselas.
So crisp and divine are the wines that they’re almost entirely consumed locally, with little left for export. This is perhaps why Swiss wine is still a secret. A visit to the region, thus, is incomplete without a taste of these bottled wonders—an activity that is endorsed through tours and tastings by the family-run vineyards.
The estate of Croix Duplex has been run by the Vogel family since 1929; it grows 13 varieties of grapes and produces 30 labels of wines. Maude Vogel, the third- generation estate owner, welcomed us with a delectable spread of charcuterie and cheese. After a quick tour of the nearby terraces, where we helped ourselves to juicy grapes picked right off the vines, Maude brought out some of their best wines and enunciated the qualities of each in French-laced English.
Happily buzzed, I set off on one of the narrow vineyard trails to the nearest railway station where I had parked my bicycle. Passing by charming farmhouses and taverns, I was so engrossed in the beauty of it all that it took me a while to realise I was lost. My extremely inadequate French speaking skills didn’t help matters with the farmers. “Railway station, you know?” I tried. Then, “Estación?” in Spanish, for some reason. “Gare!”, finally remembering the French word for it. The farmers broke into polite smiles and pointed the way.
GETTING THERE AND AROUND
Lavaux can be reached on a scenic drive from Geneva, Bern, Lausanne, or Montreux. Regular trains ply from these cities, too. Regional trains connect many of the vineyard villages within Lavaux. But the best way to soak in its charms is by road—on foot, bicycle, or by car.
STAY: Lausanne is the closest city with accommodation options for different budgets. However, vineyard stays are highly recommended. Hotel Le Baron Tavernier in Chexbres provides 26 elegant rooms with splendid views of Lake Geneva and the surrounding vineyards. From INR 10,000.
EAT: Local produce such as mushrooms, cheesy products like raclette and Gruyère, plus fresh catch from the lake.
DO: Hike along any of the vineyard trails, visit family-run wineries, and taste the local wines, especially the Chasselas and White Merlots.
Gloomy clouds loomed over the old town, the otherwise cheery River Limmat mirrored the mood of the sky, and a biting wind followed us as we drove onwards to the gorgeous countryside.
The weather in Zurich was brutal that day. We had arrived in the morning after a three-hour road trip from Lavaux. The smooth drive was made eventful by the dramatic landscapes along the way and a quick snacking pit-stop at the midway point—in Switzerland’s federal city, Bern. The morning cheer faded slightly, though, as we neared Zurich. Gloomy clouds loomed over the Old Town, the otherwise cheery River Limmat mirrored the mood of the sky, and a biting wind followed us as we drove onwards to the gorgeous countryside.
This wasn’t a day for venturing out, but the smell of something freshly baked lured us out of the car. Clutching our overcoats tightly, we reached the bakery of Leibacher Biber-Manufaktur—a homespun start-up by the Leibacher brothers, who produce a traditional Swiss- German sweet speciality called Biber. A gingerbread made from honey dough with a white almond filling, Biber originated in the Appenzell region of Switzerland, close to the border with Germany and Austria in the east. Traditionally decorated with hand-carved wooden moulds, Bibers were used to convey pictures of weddings, village festivals, important figures, or local animals. While most of those moulds were lost to time, a few survived and were miraculously found, centuries later, by Claudio Leibacher at a bakery in Appenzell.
Intrigued by the moulds and driven to reproduce the original recipe, Claudio set out to intern with various bakeries and wood sculptors. His agenda was clear—to craft a Biber using only organic, local ingredients, and without preservatives. Countless attempts later, he arrived at the perfect one—made with freshly-shelled almonds, spicy forest honey, and a hint of lemon. Claudio roped in his brother Silvan to take care of the marketing and sales, and the Leibacher Biber-Manufaktur was born.
Claudio narrated his story in barely-comprehensible, German-accented English while taking us on a tour of his bakery. His passion for Bibers was apparent in the boutique operation run by a handful of dedicated people and in the beautiful wooden moulds he has carved over the years. His love for baking shone through when he demonstrated the assembling of a Biber and urged us to try making some. We selected our favourite moulds and got to work, shaping and putting together our own Bibers. The warm, fresh-out-of-the-oven treats ensured that our drive back to Zurich would be a contented one.
GETTING THERE AND AROUND
Direct and connecting flights are available from many cities in India. Trams, buses, cable cars, and trains of the Zurich Transportation Network connect every corner of the city and the surrounding canton. Boats on Lake Zurich and River Limmat and taxis are available, too. Zurich has a free public bike scheme, and the city is fairly compact for walking.
STAY: The Old Town has several historic hotels, including the 600-year-old Marktgasse Hotel, located steps away from Lenin’s House and Cabaret Voltaire, where the Dada Movement was born. From INR 15,800. The Widder Hotel is a five-star property built on the site of Roman and Celtic ruins. From INR 40,800.
EAT: Rösti—the most popular local dish, similar to hash brown and served with a meat gravy; Bircher muesli—traditional breakfast mix of muesli and fresh strawberries, soaked in yoghurt overnight.
DO: Engage in a Biber-making workshop at Leibacher Biber-Manufaktur.
Laid-back, carefree, and always up for fun. These aren’t qualities one would attribute to the famously punctual and precise Swiss folk. But in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino—in the sunny southern region of Switzerland—things are a little different.
The morning chill in Zurich had given way to an ominous fog around Lake Zug in Central Switzerland, which made navigation difficult. Then, around a bend, the fog suddenly cleared, and a crisp blue sky met a shimmering azure lake against a sunny, green horizon. The excitement of driving past the swiftly changing scenery only heightened as we entered the Gotthard Road Tunnel. The 16.9-kilometre- long tunnel runs below the St Gotthard Pass, a major pass in the Swiss Alps and an important trade route since the 13th century. Fifteen minutes later, we emerged from the other end of the tunnel to a different land altogether.
Lying entirely to the south of the Alps bordering Italy, Ticino is the best of both worlds—a gorgeous Swiss landscape of mountains, lakes, and forests, with a cheerful Mediterranean climate of sun-kissed skies and pleasant temperament. The culture borrows more from the Italians across the border than the Swiss in nearby towns. And nowhere is this more pronounced than in Ticino’s largest city—the utterly charming Lugano.
Days here are spent lounging, sunbathing, or swimming in the scenic Lake Lugano. Yachts and boats are aplenty, and locals are often seen setting sail, even in the middle of a weekday. Steep, cobbled alleyways lead to plazas where the young and old mill around, sipping on coffee or wine. The market squares are busy, with old establishments selling cheese, pastries, and a mind-boggling array of meats. But if there’s one experience that truly defines the way of life here, it’s the art of grotto dining.
Discovered by boatmen hundreds of years ago, cave-like grottos are scattered across the mountains and by the lakes here. Initially, they were used as natural refrigerators, due to the cool air inside, to store wine, salami, and cheese. Today, the grottos have transformed into rustic taverns. Most of them feature a cave cellar, kitchen, and garden with stone tables and benches laid out in the shade of trees. A few also offer tours and fun workshops, such as traditional risotto-making.
On any given day, you’ll find the grottos around Lake Lugano packed with diners. Many come for the hearty lunch spread of homemade sausages, salami, mortadella, risotto, polenta, and cheese. And many linger on, sitting under olive trees with a glass of local wine, strumming a guitar, or simply enjoying the view—a slice of the calm, laid-back Italian way of life in Switzerland.
GETTING THERE AND AROUND
Lugano is connected with Zurich, Basel, and Milan by rail and road. A small airport serves connecting flights from Italy, England, France, and Germany via Zurich or Geneva. Buses and trains ply in the city. The two nearby hilltops are accessible by funiculars. The town and lakefront are ideal for walking and bicycle rides.
STAY: Lugano is a posh city with several luxury hotels by Lake Lugano. Grand Hotel Villa Castagnola is a magnificent five-star property that was once the home of a noble Russian family. It offers resplendent rooms and suites overlooking the lake, a one-Michelin star restaurant, private beach, tennis courts, and more. From INR 23,900.
EAT: Fantastic local dishes made of game meat and the Ticino Merlot served in traditional ceramic bowls.
DO: Take a ferry ride across Lake Lugano to hidden grottos, attend a risotto-making workshop, and try a lunch spread of homemade dishes.