Bordered by five European countries, Switzerland's perimeter reflects the diverse culture of its European neighbors. Because its rail system zigzags across the Alps like a spider web, Swiss visitors can make easy daytrips into adjacent Germany, Italy, France, Austria and Lichtenstein.
A one-hour trip northeast of Zurich whisked my husband and I to our first borderline destination, Kreuzlingen, on Lake Constance. After settling into our Swiss pension, we took a lake steamer to the island of Mainau in Germany. Nicknamed "The Flower Island", this exotic 45-acre tropical paradise is famous for its Italian rose garden and baroque castle. We rounded off our foray into Germany with a visit to the lakeside medieval village of Meersburg.
The following morning, we made a side trip to nearby Schaffhausen to visit the spectacular Rhine Falls, the largest waterfall in Europe. A boatman braved the waters and ferried us across the massive river to a steep rocky islet. The drama of clambering up the stairway and perching atop the rock surrounded by earsplitting roiling waters will be forever etched in my memory.
By contrast, untrammeled Grison in eastern Switzerland, a pristine area of remote valleys rugged gorges and timeless villages is well worth the half-day trip from Zurich. Our destination was the Benedictine Convent of St. John, a UNESCO World Heritage Site situated in Mustair close to the Swiss/Italian border in the canton (region) of Graubunden. The convent was a perfect base from which to explore the nearby farming villages where many of the locals spoke Romansh (a derivative of Latin). One afternoon we took Post bus trip across the border to the medieval town of Glurns in Tyrolean Italy. As we sipped our cappuccinos in the shaded town square and watched carts of fresh hay being trundled down through the ancient town gates, I savored the timelessness of this tranquil part of the world.
A three-hour train journey south from Zurich transported us to exotic Italian-speaking Lugano. Located in Ticino (pronounced Ticheeno), this southern Swiss canton dips its toes into the northern shores of Lake Maggiore and Lake Lugano. Snuggled between curvaceous hills, the climate is balmy. Palm trees line the lakefronts while pink camellias, lemon mimosas and purple bougainvillea spill from hillside loggias. My favorite spot was the fishing village of Gandria. An artist's paradise, stepped passageways and cobblestone alleys wend between ochre-colored houses and lead up to a little baroque church and tiny restaurant.
Across the lake is the 170-year-old "Smuggler's Museum" where if you lean too far back, puts you in Italy. Located in a former Swiss Customs Post complete with living quarters, the museum explains the role of the beret-wearing frontier police and the perilous role they played during World War Two.
To explore French-speaking western Switzerland, a two-hour journey from Zurich took us to Lausanne on croissant-shaped Lake Geneva. Lausanne's greatest claim to fame is that it is the home to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Olympic Museum. Located in Ouchy, Lausanne's lakefront quay, the museum is set in a tiered landscaped park. Taking a lake steamer from here to Montreux was the perfect way to view the patchwork quilt of vineyards and photograph the famous fairytale chateau which inspired Byron to pen the poem "The prisoner of Chillon."
From Lausanne, a short dog leg via Martigny enabled us to catch the Mont Blanc Express to Chamonix in France. The train wove its way through steep-sided valleys. Above us towered 'the Roofs of Europe', three massive jagged peaks including Mont Blanc. Icy glaciers, their sides a dirty blue-grey, hung over the valley and pockets of mist swirled forebodingly over crevasses. By chance, we arrived in Chamonix on market day. Stalls were awash with cherries, honey, goat cheese, local wine and pickled ham. Purchasing seemed to be a fine art with much discourse between vendors and patrons. Every so often a vendor's umbrella tipped over as rogue winds whipped along the valley floor.
The icy river running through the centre of town was the color of milk chocolate and cafes spilled onto sunny sidewalks. Swarthy bronzed mountain climbers huddled over dishes of cheese fondue. Stacked around their ankles were unwieldy back packs laden with ropes and ice axes. I made a mental note to visit the St. Bernard Dog Museum on our return to Martigny. A true icon, these champion animals have saved the lives of many stranded hikers along Switzerland's borders.
IF YOU GO:
PHOTOS by Hamish M. Jackson
1. Lake Constance
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