You would think travelling to expensive countries like Switzerland may be out of your financial reach, but don’t let this put you off. It can certainly be done on a small budget.
Me and mum have been going on coach trips for a few years now. She is not a big fan of flying after a traumatic experience over the Grand Canyon with a pilot who fought in the Vietnam War, and it means I don’t have to plan our trip because the company does everything for you. It’s perfect for those who love to travel through a number of countries with little planning and research prior to departure. You can see and experience a multitude of hotspots, towns, stunning scenery and art galleries all the while being educated about the places you visit by an extremely knowledgable tour guide. Ultimately, it’s the chance to sit back, read a book, drink gin (in our case) and watch the world go by from the luxury of a reclined seat.
The first stop onwards to Switzerland was the beautiful town of Riquewihr in north-eastern France. It is a popular tourist attraction known well for its historical architecture and has been officially named as one of the most beautiful villages in France. Looking today more or less as it did in the 16th century after narrowly escaping damage during World War II., Riquewihr is known for the Riesling and other great wines produced in the village.
We wandered around exploring the delights of this quaint town and found a number of pâtisseries, boulangeries and artist ateliers to peruse. Riquewihr is architecturally striking. It looked liked a Hollywood movie set. The pastel colours of the buildings reminded me of Nyhavn habour in Copenhagen, it also had a similar bustling atmosphere with people eating, drinking and shopping. It felt like a world away from England but incredibly only 7 hours drive from Dover.
After a delicious sample or two of Alsace wine, we crossed over the border and into beautiful Basel then headed south to Lucerne and onto our lakeside base. I have always wanted to experience Switzerland’s scenery first hand, hike up a mountain pass and stand at the foot of the Eiger. It was all on the agenda for over the next fortnight but first of all I had another bucket list adventure to tick off – hopping onto the famous Glacier Express.
This spectacular journey saw us cruise through dramatic alpine scenery climbing steeply up mountain passes, all the while hoping the train endured the inclines to reach the remote villages on our chosen section of the route. The entire trip on the Glacier Express is altogether a 7½ hour railway journey across 291 bridges, through 91 tunnels and across the Oberalp Pass on the highest point at 2,033m (6,670ft) in altitude.
This was just the beginning of our high altitude experience, Mount Pilatus would be the next at 2,128 m (6,982 ft). The mountain is famed for the world’s steepest cog railway. This begins its climb at Alpnachstad and tackles a maximum gradient of 48 percent on the edge of rock faces. Passing up through forests and meadows it is certainly a mountain adventure for the whole family to enjoy. The cog train got us up the toughest terrain however once near to the summit it was time to leave mum seated in the multitude of cafes, shops and eateries and for me to power up to the highest peak. The weather conditions change every five minutes at this altitude. I scrambled up not being able to see my hand in front of my face, but then suddenly clear and breathtaking views 7000ft above sea level emerged. I was way above the clouds and utterly stunned by the landscape.
I admire a lot of heroes within the travel and expedition industry, one of which being English mountaineer Kenton Cool. Kenton Cool is one of Britain’s leading alpine and high altitude climbers and has summited Mount Everest twelve times, including leading Sir Ranulph Fiennes’ 2008 and 2009 Expeditions. I knew that Kenton was in Switzerland at the time of my visit so in secret I hoped and wished to see him at the peak of Pilatus, despite this summit being just a walk in the park for him. Saddened that I didn’t bump into him at the top I did however return to phone signal to discover his well wishes on my Instagram account …… that’ll do!
Over the next week we ventured to the beautiful town of Lucerne which is full of medieval frescoed buildings, charming narrow streets, decorative fountains and numerous pavement cafes. We explored at leisure the city’s many attractions, such as the beautiful Chapel Bridge, the octagonal Water Tower and Lucerne’s Old Town. We also spent a full day taking in the many sights of Brienz. The town is known for its unique woodcarvings and is a great opportunity to purchase hand-carved souvenirs. A number of Cuckoo Clocks were purchased by our tour friends, gorgeous…..yes, irritatingly loud….probably!
After the trip to Brienz, we journeyed onwards to the city of Interlaken where we took a stroll through the Japanese garden and admired the amazing mountain views from Hohematte Park. Interlaken lies in the Bernese Oberland on an alluvial plain, between Lake Thun and Lake Brienz. The holiday destination, which is presided over by the three mighty mountains, Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau, is the starting point for numerous activities. The town is hugely keen to welcome a multitude of shoppers with the cash to splash on new rolex watches. Opposite the beautiful shops and hotels the Jungfrau was sadly out of sight, masked by heavy cloud. Despite this, I had confidence that the weather would change for our next day trip to Grindlewald to witness the mightiest mountain of all, the Eiger.
Before Grindlewald however, Engelberg was next on the agenda. The town of Engelberg is appealing because of its distinct and rustic character. The Benedictine monastery was founded in 1120 and has a great impact on the life of the village, even today. Monks still live, work and teach there. The homes left over from the Belle Epoque are also witnesses of that time period. In combination with the Swiss flair, the special architecture lends the village its very own charm. It was the perfect place to pick out the other half a beautiful wooden Victorinox Swiss Army Knife. Extra girlfriend points right there.
Our Switzerland journey was coming to a close with a trip to the charming town of Grindlewald, a popular ski resort with lovely views and lots to see and do. This place was by far my favourite, it was spotlessly clean with quaint cafes and shops as well as mind-blowing panoramic views. With many short walks available in the town, as well as traditional Swiss-style buildings to admire, it was great to relax here and enjoy some swiss chocolate and coffee. The town itself is towered by the the most notable feature of the Eiger, its 1,800-metre-high (5,900ft) north face of sheer rock and ice – the biggest north face in the Alps. They call the north face the murder wall, it is one of the most dangerous places on the planet for those brave enough to tackle the 1800m climb. It is hard to describe just how much the Eiger shadows the quiet town of Grindlewald below, i’ve never seen anything like it.
According to our tour guide, more than 60 climbers have died on the wall, trapped in the snow-filled cracks or have tumbled to their deaths. Two fatalities were recorded by Channel 4 who made a documentary about the many thrill-seekers heading to the Eiger. Despite being notorious for climbing fatalities, a number of climbers have defeated this beast, some even without ropes.
Our road trip around Switzerland not only ticked off some major bucket list sights, but gave me a good insight into this Central European country and its culture. Home to numerous glossy blue lakes, villages, good beer, food and the high peaks of the Alps, it really was Swiss bliss.