The perfect trip: Switzerland
A visitor with an old illustrated copy of The Lord of the Rings might feel a flash of recognition. JRR Tolkien came here in 1911 and took inspiration from what he saw to create the valley of Rivendell. At that time, the last tunnels were being dug inside the Eiger and Mönch to emerge at the 3,454m Jungfraujoch – then, as now, the highest railway station in Europe. Since the late 19th century, the people of the valley have obliged visitors with ever more inventive ways to experience the landscape.
Samuel Brunner is one local with a head for heights. In his job working the cable car from Wengen to the mountaintop of Männlichen, he experiences the 947-metre height difference many times every day. ‘Some people can’t deal with it and quit after a month,’ he admits. ‘So far I’m okay.’ From the cabin he has a vantage point over Wengen and the valley beneath. ‘It’s possible to see lynx every now and then. chamois and eagles, too. I can even see my house – I keep tabs on it.’
From Wengen, a steep but broad path zigzags down through the forest to the valley floor. The Staubbach Falls, pride of Lauterbrunnen’s cascades, teases the onlooker with glimpses through the trees until the woods open up to reveal the falls to their full height. Even in a place where feats of Swiss engineering abound, some of the best views are only reached on foot.
La Gruyère: Best for cheese and chocolate
The language border between Switzerland’s German-speaking centre and its Francophone west is dubbed the Röstigraben (‘rösti ditch’) after the beloved Swiss-German potato dish. Just west of this divide lies the region of La Gruyère, which specialises in two foodstuffs that unite the country. One has been produced as long as humans have farmed the Alpine meadows. The other is a tropical import that only became a Swiss speciality after the Industrial Revolution. Both are best enjoyed in a moderation seldom easy to maintain, and both owe their success to the most smugly contented cows you are ever likely to see.
Chocolate is the more recent of the twin Swiss culinary stereotypes. In the early 19th century, Switzerland became one of the first countries to give this Aztec drink a solid form, and the Cailler chocolate brand is the country’s oldest. Since 1898, it has been based outside the village of Broc, close to the 56 farms that supply its milk. The factory tour ends in a tasting room, where visitors eye the full Cailler range, wondering if etiquette permits them to take more than one piece from each tray.
The average Swiss eats a world-record 12 kilos of chocolate a year. In the cheese stakes, Switzerland loses out to Greece, but at 21 kilos a head it is not for want of trying.
Gruyère cheese and the softer, younger Vacherin are the region’s specialities. In a fromagerie d’alpage – an old dairy on the mountain slopes of Moléson, full of inscrutable farm implements and the smell of woodsmoke – Marc Savary swings a huge cauldron over a soot-blackened hearth. ‘I get up at 4.30 and I go to bed with the sun,’ he says. ‘But it’s not work for me, it’s a pleasure.’ Marc has an admission. He doesn’t make Gruyère, technically speaking. The strict production rules require cows to graze by the place where their milk is turned into cheese, and in this case the ski slopes outside get in the way.
‘It’s the same process as Gruyère and in my opinion it could be even better,’ Marc says. ‘Our small farms keep the landscape beautiful. Farmers maintain the meadows and forests on the slopes, and that helps to keep winter snow in place. If we weren’t here, there would be a risk of avalanches.’