Travel review: Switzerland
Not just the home of neutrality and Toblerone, Switzerland is also the place to go for wine, wellness and lots of fresh air, says Ella Walker.
So, it turns out I’d never really used my lungs to their full capacity before. They’d been as deflated as three-day-old birthday balloons. That is, until they got stripped out by Swiss, mountain-filtered air so clean and crisp I want to drink it down and then store the rest in tanks to take home.
It helps take the edge off the fact it’s too hazy to see across the crescent of Lake Geneva. I’m faced instead by an imposing muddle of sky and water, with navy chunks of shadowy land spiking through intermittently where the Jura Mountains ought to be.
Still, discovering what it feels like to be able to breathe properly seems like a good a start to a weekend-long health, food and wellbeing jaunt in Switzerland.
My plan is to rattle along the lake by rail from Geneva, at the tapered southerly point of the lake, curving up and over the still, biro-blue expanse to the city of Lausanne, and onward to Villars. The entire journey takes around two hours, but I choose to stop off along the way.
Domaine Croix Duplex in Grandvaux is one stop on from Lausanne. A family-run vineyard on a lush slope, where flocks of starlings (“grape eaters”) wheel overhead, it’s famed locally for its Chasselas grapes, grown year-round and harvested in autumn to make mainly white wine.
“If it doesn’t say it on the bottle, it’s definitely a Chasselas wine,” says Maude, who runs Domaine Croix Duplex with her brother Simon, as we stand on the balcony, lodged above a carpet of grapes and lake. “When your back hurts, you just look at the view.”
The view is both spectacular and restorative, but so is ducking between the indoor and outdoor pools of the spa at the magnificently turreted Hotel Royal Savoy.
Built in 1909 overlooking Lausanne’s harbour, Port of Ouchy, the Savoy extravagantly blurs the line between Disney’s Cinderella Castle and cult director Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel.
For a Friday night, I’m struck by how peaceful it is along the harbour’s promenade, where elderly men play chess, raffish teenagers skateboard and the nonchalant hoots of Lake Geneva’s historic paddle steamers punctuate the lot.
Inland, in the belly of the city, the formerly industrial Le Flon district has been transformed into a hub of collaborative hipster energy and eco vision – 18,000 plants frost the living roof of the Lausanne-Flon metro station.
The tangle of higgledy-piggledy streets here are pitched at an angle that makes your calves ache as you edge up towards the caramel-coloured stone of the 13th century Cathedral of Notre Dame.
“There’s a nightwatchman you can visit,” says our guide, Hilary, who explains the cathedral has been manned every evening since the 1400s. “He’s up there until 2am, so if you can’t sleep, he likes the company. It gets cold though.”
She steers us through Place de la Riponne, where market stalls spill over with fiery arcs of pumpkin, frilly spears of rainbow chard, tatty Persian rugs and so much bread – from clusters of braided tresse to bulbous cuchaule (an enriched dough a bit like brioche), which Hilary tells us the Swiss eat as a weekend treat. We sip the silkiest hot chocolate from cobalt blue mugs at Chocolaterie le Barbare before jumping back on the train to Villars, a mountain sports village south of the eastern tip of Lake Geneva, almost 60km on from Lausanne.
Allegedly, there are incredible views out over the Rhone Valley, but huge whorls of fog scupper us, obscuring the craggy mountains with a chilly mist that muffles everything except the eerie ringing of bells.
We fortify ourselves on rotisserie chicken and sticky tarte tatin at the nearby alpine Hotel du Lac in Bretaye, before an hour-long hike back down to Villars proper.
We find the source of that strange ringing from earlier when we stumble upon a herd of roaming cows; their traditional cowbells reverberating off the peaks around us.
They’re rather charming, all wide-eyed and snuffling, but our mountain guide, Anne – who occasionally disappears, only to return with fungi foraged for her dinner – is adamant: “The sound of those bells isn’t so charming at 5am.”
Later, we discover that mushroom picking is the norm among home cooks here, while a bona fide mountain cuisine based largely on foraging, and not just cheese fondue is beginning to really gather momentum.
Take our hotel in Villars, Chalet Royalp; just days before we arrive, head chef Alain Montigny earned his first Michelin star, and after a meal of chestnut foam, olive oil roasted scallops and whipped hazelnut praline, you can see why.
Stretching languorously while doing yoga on our final morning, mountains glinting through the window, I completely understand how easy it would be to just stay put. You can’t argue with the idea of perpetually orbiting Lake Geneva, drinking in the air – and the Chasselas.
Ella Walker was a guest of the Geneva region tourist board, www.lake-geneva-region.ch
The Royal Savoy Lausanne (royalsavoy.ch) offers rooms from CHF 300 (about £240) per night, room only.
The Chalet Royalp Hotel & Spa (royalp.ch) in Villars has rooms from CHF 340 (about £275) per night with breakfa