The perfect trip: Switzerland
This 390-mile road trip begins at Lake Lucerne, the historic birthplace of Switzerland, before taking in the awe-inspiring Lauterbrunnen Valley, the cheese and chocolate region of La Gruyère, the grandeur of the Aletsch Glacier and the idyllic Val Müstair.
Lake Lucerne: Best for history
It all began with an apple. Some 700 years ago, the story goes, a sadistic bailiff called Gessler decided to teach the people living around the many arms of mountain-flanked Lake Lucerne a lesson in obedience. In the market square of Altdorf, at the lake’s southern end, he placed a hat atop a pole to symbolise the power of the region’s Habsburg rulers, and ordered all the local people to bow before it as they passed.
One man refused however and, as a punishment, Gessler forced him to shoulder a crossbow and shoot an apple off the head of his own son. As the statue that stands in Altdorf today proclaims, that man was William Tell, and this was the act that inspired a people to fight for freedom. The only problem with the story – and don’t mention this too loudly around Lake Lucerne – is that it’s almost certainly a myth.
‘It’s a difficult topic for Swiss people who want to remember him as a hero,’ says Eva Fischlin, who teaches classes at the Forum of Swiss History, ten miles north of Altdorf in the town of Schwyz, capital of the canton of the same name. ‘The Tell legend was presented until recently as historical fact, but the truth is that he’s mentioned for the first time in the late 15th century and never before that. It’s widely acknowledged that his tale is a copy of a Scandinavian legend.’
The Forum’s home is a solid 18th- century former granary, but its location has extra significance. Schwyz was one of the three founder members of an alliance, made in around 1291, that grew to become today’s 26-canton Swiss Confederation. Schwyz gave its name to the rest of the country, in a roundabout way, and even the famed Swiss Army knife is made here, in the Victorinox factory just downhill from the town centre. Schwyz’s place in the national mythology is irreproachable, even if William Tell’s isn’t.
At the northern end of Lake Lucerne is Lucerne itself, which became member number four of the confederation in 1332. The fine townhouses that line both sides of the Reuss river are mostly of a later date, but Lucerne still has a witness to those times in the shape of the Kapellbrücke – the covered wooden bridge that departs with convention by taking a leisurely diagonal route across the river.
For an overview, in the truest sense, of early Switzerland, it’s worth doubling back from Lucerne. Above the village of Stoos, a chairlift climbs up to the Fronalpstock, where a viewing platform looks over Lake Lucerne, nearly a mile below. By the shore is a small patch of lighter green surrounded by dark forest. This is the Rütli, where the founders of the confederation supposedly swore their oath after Tell ambushed and killed Gessler. It is fitting that the spot where Switzerland commemorates its birth isn’t a battlefield or a colonnaded hall, but a simple meadow, beside a mountain lake.
Lauterbrunnen Valley: Best for Alpine scenery
When travelling in the Alps, it’s easy to become accustomed to magnificent scenery, but Lauterbrunnen startles all who see it. On either side of the broad valley, cliffs rise 300 metres until they reach forested slopes. The village of Wengen sits in a cleared space on the eastern ledge, looking out across the valley to the chalets of Mürren, on its own shelf to the west. Waterfalls, 72 of them, leap from the cliffs on either side, and behind Wengen rise the triple peaks of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau – the ogre, the monk and the maiden.