The perfect trip: Switzerland

Rocks and ice took the first steps in creating this mountainous land, home to a multitude of Alpine valleys, enchanting towns and the two best kinds of food to melt in a pot.

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.

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.’

At the region’s heart is the boundlessly charming hilltop town of Gruyères and its 13th-century castle. At one end of a square that sags in the middle like an old mattress stands a chalet fronted with wooden shingles. Leave all reticence at the door, and sit down to a fondue made, fifty-fifty, with Gruyère and Vacherin, mixed with white wine and finished with a dash of Kirsch.

Aletsch Glacier: Best for ice
The biggest glacier in the Alps isn’t visible from the road that follows the headwaters of the Rhône up through the canton of Valais. Nor can it be seen from the three nearest villages – Riederalp, Bettmeralp and Fiescheralp – whose dark wooden chalets bask on sunny slopes high above the valley, reached only by cable car. The payoff comes after one last lift ride up to the top of the mountain ridge. On the far side is a valley engulfed with ice, which disappears from view between the crags.

It’s a sight that induces awe. Any walker who stands for a moment, silhouetted against the mountain skyline above the glacier, automatically looks heroic. Seen from the 2,333m heights of Moosfluh, over Bettmeralp, the ice snakes like the number 3. Darker lines of rocky debris – the medial moraines – track the length of the glacier, dividing the ice into lanes and giving the Aletsch the look of an unfinished motorway for ice giants.

Most visitors take in the giddy view and then turn back without ever setting foot on the glacier. For that you’re strongly advised to team up with a local guide. Martin Nellen prefers to start the walk down to the ice edge in the early morning. The path leads past a dry-stone wall, marking the boundary of a nature reservation. Two chamois, startled at this quiet time of day, bound across the trail, over the wall and into their state-protected sanctuary.

Martin demonstrates how to tie crampons under our walking boots – the metal spikes will give purchase on the ice. And to prepare for any slips, the inexperienced are joined to him by a length of rope. The edge of the glacier slopes up to the height of a two-storey house. Anybody else would be lost on its surface, which is as disordered as a sea frozen mid-storm and slightly different with each new dawn. ‘Ten days ago it was impossible to walk just here, but now it’s a highway,’ Martin points out.

Aside from the crunch of crampons on ice, the only sound is meltwater running over the glacier surface in a perfect zigzag stream. Crossing a medial moraine, we reach a pothole in the ice with a stream plunging into it. A stone thrown in gives a booming echo. At another stream, we stop to have ‘glacier milk’ – a cupful of meltwater clouded with a dash of absinthe.

‘Remember that we are moving slowly even when we’re standing still,’ says Martin. ‘The glacier travels about 30cm a day on average. Only in higher regions does snowfall turn to ice. Take a metre of powder snow, then melt and freeze, melt and freeze, and after eight to 10 years you have a centimetre of ice. When you see the ice at the end of the glacier, you are looking at snow that fell up to 800 years ago.’

Glaciers in most parts of the world are shrinking and the Aletsch is no exception. In our lifetimes, it is likely to shrink to the size it was in the Roman era. But even in its present majesty, it is only a fraction of the length it reached at the height of the last ice age, around 20,000 years ago, when the whole of the Rhône Valley as far as Lake Geneva was one long glacier. In the early 21st century, it’s a privilege to meet the greatest descendant of the icefields that made Switzerland what it is today.

Val Müstair: Best for preservation
If Switzerland is a country that grew on the principle of letting each valley do its own thing in terms of language, religion and customs, then the southeastern canton of Graubünden is a Switzerland of its own. Crossing a pass into a new valley, it’s common to see a different shape and style to the houses, while the place names could be German, Italian or even Romansch. This last language, a descendant of Latin, is spoken by around 60,000 people in Graubünden – and nowhere else.

Val Müstair is one of the valleys where Romansch predominates. Its six villages are cut off from the rest of the country, except for a single mountain road that runs through a broad belt of virgin forest that forms part of the Swiss National Park. At the valley’s end, where the River Rom flows into Italy, is the Benedictine Convent of St John in the village of Müstair – today a World Heritage site. Begun under the emperor Charlemagne around 780 AD, it shelters glorious frescoes from the 9th and 12th centuries, making it a rare window into those times.

This historical survivor is just one story of preservation in a valley where more than 90 per cent of farms are organic. Val Müstair is allegedly the only Swiss valley where all power lines are buried and where water flows from mountain springs to the border with no human interference. It also has a sunny microclimate – trees grow up to 2,300m here, where normally in Europe the tree line runs at 1,800m.

All this is music to the ears of Luciano and Gisela Beretta, who run the Antica Distilleria Beretta in the village of Tschierv. This couple – Italian- and German-speaking in the casual confusion of tongues typical of this region – have set up a distillery where spirits made from local grain are infused with mountain fruits and herbs, including lemon balm, pinecones and edelweiss.

A brook flows past the distillery, with its thick stucco walls bulging under the pressures of accumulated winters, its woodpile neatly stacked and pears left on mats outside in the sun. ‘Up here at 1,700m, water boils at 90 degrees not 100, which makes the quality of the spirit better,’ Luciano declares, pointing out the re-purposed washing machine they use to boil the water and flour to begin the fermentation process. ‘Once these were medicines,’ Gisela explains. ‘This was a closed valley, with no money for doctors – only folk remedies.’

In another house in the village, Renata Bott invites me into her kitchen to talk about a different legacy of Alpine isolation – her mother tongue Romansch. ‘It’s the fourth language of Switzerland, but for us it’s the first,’ she says. ‘The German-, French- and Italian-speaking Swiss have larger countries that speak their languages, but for the Romansch people, there is no land behind us.’ There is a proverb in Romansch she is particularly fond of: ‘Vi dal chant as cugnuoscha l’utschè – you will know the bird from its song. It talks about my love for my language.’

Small country though it may be, Switzerland always seems to find room to accommodate something wonderfully of its own kind.

The article 'The perfect trip: Switzerland' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Traveller.