James Goffin returns from Switzerland full of positive praise about a country he had believed to be extremely ‘neutral’.
I’d been warned about the Swiss.
The report was that they are very pleasant, and very organised. But when it came to having a good time, they were a bit too, well, civilised.
Referenda and clean streets are one thing, but occasionally you want to cut loose, have a few drinks and relax – and not get up in curfews and noise laws. Everything would be, like Property Ladder on steroids: extremely neutral.
As I was going to Switzerland to visit a series of festivals and see what the country has to offer outside of its traditional winter skiing holidays, this was something of a worry.
My trip started with something of a quirk – a brief stay at the Yotel at Heathrow. A cross between a caravan and a container park, Yotel offers compact beds rented out by the hour. The rooms can’t be described as spacious but that’s not the point – they are stylish, surprisingly comfortable, freakishly purple and have everything you need to ensure you start or finish your trip refreshed. Because you’re not paying for floorspace you’re not using, they also cost must less than a standard airport hotel and are sited right in the heart of the airport terminal.
Flying into Geneva got things back on a more conventional tack. The airport sits directly on top of the railway station so we were quickly on the way to our first stop thanks to the startlingly efficient Swiss train service.
Travelling by train is a great way to see Switzerland – many routes offer spectacular views with the tracks twisting round corners to reveal mountains and lakes. Tourists can buy a Swiss Pass rover ticket that offers either inclusive or half-price travel on most trains, buses and boats, plus free entry to 450 museums. Prices start from £163 for four days of second-class travel.
We headed first to the Lavaux vineyards – and with wine from the outset, chances of a good time were increasing. A series of terraces leading down to the shores of Lake Geneva, the area has been producing wine since the 11th century and was declared a world heritage site in 2007. The Swiss are a little selfish with their wines and you’ll struggle to find it outside of the country, which given the quality is a shame.
The wines are produced in small quantities by family growers, many of whom offer tours and visits in the summer.
Next stop was Montreux for the annual jazz festival. We boarded a paddle-steamer on the banks of the lake for the transfer. Our journey was pleasantly sedate, but the boats run at night as party boats – complete with bars and bands.
It was becoming clear that things wouldn’t be so straight-laced after all.
Montreux is at the heart of an area dubbed the Swiss Riviera. It’s a compact town dominated by the rows of classic hotels lining the lakefront. We stayed at the Grand Hotel Suisse Majestic which boasts traditional yellow awninged balconies on the outside but has been completely modernised inside, including a glitzy but unpretentious terrace bar and restaurant.
The annual jazz festival in July is a huge draw, and has grown to encompass a much wider range of music than its name suggests, from Simply Red to Massive Attack, as well as the more chin-stroking jazz acts. It is housed in two large concert halls by the lake, but spills out into the surrounding streets with free concerts, discos and outdoor bars and stalls running into the early hours. If you want to cut loose, you can and there is a brilliantly relaxed atmosphere.
For a less formal – and cheaper – festival experience, Lausanne’s Festival de la Cite is a great alternative to Montreux. Sponsored by the city authorities, it includes 120 music, theatre, dance and art events – all free to attend – and attracts about 95,000 people a year for events as diverse as classical performances in the city’s 13th century Gothic cathedral to pop acts on a specially-built stage in the main square.
Lausanne is much bigger than Montreux, extending up the rising slopes next to Lake Geneva, but it’s easy enough to get round thanks to its metro system – the first in Switzerland.
Walking through the old city is rewarding in itself, though, with a complex street pattern of hidden alleys and steps, including unusual covered wooden staircases.
The Ouchy district is home to the headquarters of the International Olympic Committee, and the Olympic Museum, set in a gorgeous landscaped park. My interest in sport normally extends only to avoiding it but the museum still captured my attention, exploring the history of the Olympic movement and issues like the use of science in sport. For those who want to get sporty themselves, Lake Geneva offers every sort of watersport, with dozens of land-based sports catered for on the Ouchy embankment.
Lausanne has a much wider selection of hotels than Montreux, making it an ideal base to explore the region. We stayed at the impressive Hotel Angleterre & Residence, which actually consists of six differently-styled blocks reflecting 18th, 19th and 21st century design, close by the waterfront.
A very different atmosphere is to be found in the nearby Alpine mountain regions. Already very busy in the winter months thanks to its high-quality skiing, the area is increasingly popular in summer too. There are more than 180 miles of marked walking routes and 80 miles of bike routes, taking in mountain lakes, Alpine farms and some spectacular views. Col de la Croix farm is open to the public with the chance to see cheese-making in action – and then relax with some fresh bread, coffee and examples of the cheese you’ve just seen being produced.
Stay in a hotel in Villars, Gryon or Les Diablerets during the summer and you’ll receive a free pass for activities and transport in the region, including golf, tennis, swimming and archery, steam trains and gondola lifts; although just strolling and resting in the mountain air while taking in the chocolate box vistas of wooden chalets, forests and streams is refreshing enough on its own.
A major attraction all year round is Glacier 3000. Part-owned by Formula 1 boss Bernie Ecclestone, it offers summer activities that include huskie rides, hiking and snow bus tours, as well as mountain views from its vantage point, restaurant and terrace. If you’re brave enough you can also try the Via Ferrata – or Iron Road – a climbing route up the mountain so named because of the metal steps fixed in to the cliff face.
Glacier 3000 also boasts the Alpine Coaster. A first glance this doesn’t look much, a winding track carrying 30 sleds, but once you’re on it and are being thrown around the 520-degree loop at 25mph it’s suddenly a lot more nerve-wracking.
There may be little après-ski in summer, but there is still good food and drink to be had. We stayed at the Eurotel in Villars and while the hotel facilities are more basic than those in the main cities the restaurant was easily a match, with chef Joel Quentin offering unique Alpine flower gastronomy using freshly-picked local plants.
The nightime activities are a little more restricted – and more pricey – than in the city, but even in a small town like Villars there is still a decent range of restaurants, bars and clubs to visit.
Summer in Switzerland offers much more than the straight-laced stereotype might suggest. From world-class music festivals to summer sports, I came away anything but neutral about Switzerland. It got a big thumbsup.