Many years ago, the mainstay of my evening entertainment calendar – and indeed my family’s – was Heidi, Girl of the Alps. We’d gather around the television and for about an hour, live in her world – traipsing around the Alps, charming everyone from her grumpy grandfather to Peter the goatherd, drinking fresh milk and eating fresh cheese all day and, my favourite, counting infinite stars through the attic window beside her bed. It was so idyllic, so fairy-tale-like, it was best preserved in memory to escape to – until I found myself standing outside her village one rainy afternoon in Switzerland.
Johanna Spyri’s work of fiction, one of the world’s bestselling books of all time, is perfectly captured in all its typical Swiss magic at Swissminiatur in Melide as a pretty green village surrounded by snow-capped mountains. I’m afraid, though, that I might break something, or stomp all over the cattle.
The miniature model can have the best of us mistaking make-believe for reality – that is a testament to the sheer quality of craftsmanship this 57-year-old park is home to. It’s Switzerland in a heartbeat, with the best of what the country has to offer, its monuments and spectacular natural sights spread across 14,000 sq m.
Little 1:25-scale model trains chug about on rails that pass through tunnels carved into rocks before pulling into stations, while reproductions of Switzerland’s most renowned cable cars – including Titlis Rotair, which rotates 360 degrees while going up and down Mt Titlis, and which we would experience later – climb delicate cables like clockwork. Now run by founder Pierre Vuigner’s sons, Swissminiatur replicates Swiss enchantment to perfection.
The 30-minute journey to the park, just off Lake Lugano, is a picturesque one by boat from Lugano’s city centre. We’d arrived early that morning in Zurich from Dubai via Swiss – asleep in great comfort, thanks to the amazing business-class seats – and had taken the train to Ticino canton’s largest city.
There are many ways to travel when you’re in a foreign country, depending on the budget and what’s at the heart of the trip. But in Switzerland, the only way to truly experience jaw-dropping vistas and everyday life, and do so in comfort, is by using the Swiss Travel System. The country’s train, bus and boat network is enviably well connected, simple to use, and famous for always being on time – Swiss precision at its zenith. Except maybe in Lugano, which shares its borders with Italy, and is distinctively Italian (read relaxed). One of our guides went to school in Italy, by which I mean she took the boat from her home in Switzerland every day to Italy just on the other side of the lake!
As part of a group invited by Switzerland Tourism to check out how efficient everything is, we are armed with the Swiss Travel Pass, an all-in-one first-class open-sesame to move around the country as we please. It allows for unlimited travel for a certain number of days by rail, road and waterways in nearly 75 towns and cities – including on board most panoramic trains such as Glacier Express, Bernina Express and Wilhelm Tell Express – as well as entry into over 490 museums.
A magnificent voyage aboard the Wilhelm Tell Express took us to Lucerne, where we sample the classic dish rösti at Stadtkeller.
Travelling in and around Lugano and Lucerne is, in fact, the most favourite part of my trip. Winding up and down the Alps, which I feel only by the popping of my ears, in seamless quiet, I witness life deep in the heart of Swiss country.
Cattle graze on lush grass that has come alive in spring, while the inhabitants of Swiss homes atop seemingly impossible-to-reach heights walk up and down steep paths for daily chores. The melting snow turns into tiny rivulets or waterfalls that snake down craggy massifs, while pine trees along the mountain facades shake off the last vestiges of winter. The landscape is a striking tableau of green, white and brown, and we traverse hundreds of kilometres through it.
With pregnant clouds embracing mountain tops, the weather is rainy – ironic considering one of Lugano’s claims to fame is being among Switzerland’s sunniest areas. I enjoy the bristling chill of about 11°C for the most part of the day, but we miss visiting Ticino’s capital Bellinzona, a mere 20 minutes or so away from Lugano by train, because of the persistent showers. It is home to three magnificent castles that are now Unesco World Heritage Sites, which are closed when it rains.
Lugano’s other big attraction is the 925m-high Monte Brè. You can ride to the top via the century-old Monte Brè funicular. It offers gorgeous views of sleepy Lugano, its meandering lake and verdant mountains – including Monte San Salvatore, which is astonishingly similar to Rio de Janeiro’s Sugarloaf Mountain and thus nicknamed – but heavy clouds had enveloped the peak.
At the foot of Monte Brè and on the shores of Lake Lugano is our home in the city, Grand Hotel Villa Castagnola. A member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World, this revamped villa has retained all its traditional beauty and more. Manicured lawns welcome visitors to the majestic 74-suite villa, which traces its origins to the late 1800s when a Russian family built it as their winter residence – a nod to the time when a large number of foreign nationals began to settle here.
For the most part, it was tough to leave the luxe confines of the Palace Luzern and Lugano’s Villa Castagnola Grand Hotel.
Featuring typical Italian design and architecture, the corridors are filled with priceless works of art by local and sometimes unnamed artists. In fact, the villa’s signature restaurant, Gallery Arté al Lago, hosts exhibitions twice a year, and is also Lugano’s only Michelin-starred eatery.
We sit down to lunch at the hotel’s brand new restaurant, La Rucola. It’s modern compared to the rest of the property, but starched tablecloths and a fresh and easy menu can’t rob it of old-world charm. Dining is a homely affair, and we share everything from bread to salads and mains between the eight of us. That is where its Italian credentials come in, I observe – as they do in simply talking to people or even at the hotel’s beautiful lounge, where an exquisite pianist plays soulful melodies with his heart on his sleeve.
Lugano, however, is as contemporary as it is quaint, evidenced in the newly launched The View, a boutique hotel set in the heart of San Salvatore with a bird’s-eye view of the amiable city. The minimalist interiors are offset by the wooden warmth of the rooms, and the tech is top-notch – as is its only restaurant, Innocenti Evasioni. Our aubergine-tomato soup is simply divine, especially as we are freezing, while the lamb chunks poached with plums take my breath away. It is such an unfussy meal; it lets the freshness of the ingredients do all the talking, and I couldn’t have asked for more.
As a matter of fact, it appears that dining well is a given in Ticino. No meal disappoints. The next day, after roaming around FoxTown outlet stores, we visit Ascona in Locarno, about 42km from Lugano. Set on the shores of Lake Maggiore, it’s Switzerland’s lowest-lying town and charmingly beautiful. The lakeside is choc-a-bloc with buzzing restaurants and hotels, while labyrinthine alleyways networking around it home the locals. It’s a tourist hotspot, especially during its annual jazz festival when mornings blend into afternoons and then nights, and the weather invites swimming in the lake, boating excursions and treks up the mountains.
We dine at the one-Michelin-star Seven Easy, which has me hooked right at the entrance. Rows of unpronounceable gelati and faux-fur-wrapped chairs set the tone, while inside is all rustic wood and la dolce vita. My gambas in olive oil are just perfect, as are the melt-in-the-mouth beetroot gnocchi. And with massive wood-fired ovens at the heart of the restaurant’s open kitchen, how can pizza be anything but delicious?
We depart Lugano the next day to take the Wilhelm Tell Express to Lucerne in the German-speaking centre-north of Switzerland. It’s outrageous to visit this country and not ride in one of its several panoramic trains, which sport large windows and extremely plush seating for an optimum experience. The nearly five-hour journey is divided between railway and waterway, so you arrive at Fluelen after a magnificent south-to-north voyage via the Gotthard line through the mountains, and board the boat on the shores of the emerald Lake Lucerne.
It’s a gorgeous day and the sun is out in all its glory, so everything seems to glisten and sparkle – the water, the remnants of snow atop the Alps, the foliage and all the little towns and villages we pass while on the boat. The frigid breeze does nothing to dampen the spirits as everyone bravely sits on deck to watch pockets of Switzerland go by. They are perhaps the most picturesque three hours I’ve ever spent.
Our home for the next two days is the historic Palace Luzern along the lake, towering over all else with its distinct green dome and old-fashioned facade.
Over the past century and more, the award-winning property has entertained some of the greatest names in the arts, such as Ray Charles and Paulo Coelho. Its rooms offer a panoramic view of the entire expanse of the lake in front of it and the mountains that rise from the shores.
Lucerne’s youthful buzz makes for a great night out.
Lucerne has a delightful youthful buzz to it, and as night falls, the streets are full of throaty cars, dancers and musicians. Spring is in the air, and everyone’s out in full swing; of course, it helps that the sun sets at around 10pm.
We embark almost immediately on a walking city tour, which is the best way to discover Lucerne. Every corner seems to hark to the past, and Switzerland’s neutral history is by no means dull. My favourite part is one of its many squares – where once a bustling beverage market thrived – which has an apothecary with walls that declare in Latin: ‘We have no cure for the broken heart’.
There’s no missing some tourist traps, and I highly recommend the Stadtkeller. Alongside typical Swiss food (read lots of fondue and rösti), it puts up a hugely enjoyable folklore show with tonnes of odeling, people in cow costumes – the bovine is the informal emblem of Switzerland – and dancing in a circle around the restaurant. It brings together people from all over the world and is incredibly joyous and full of life.
The highlight of the trip though is going to Mt Titlis from Engelberg, about 25km from Lake Lucerne, where the fields are in full bloom and yellow dandelions appear like countless stars dotting the meadows. The cows are on their way to the mountains to graze on fresh grass as we start the first part of the journey – a 25-minute cable car ride to the top of the jewel of Central Switzerland.
I’m a bit anxious as we reach dizzying heights, travelling from a mere 1,000m to 3,239m. There are two stations to the stand from where you board Titlis Rotair, the world’s first rotating gondola with humbling views of the snow and mountains passing beneath. It takes you to the glacier, where skiing, hiking and a whole bunch of fun activities await, including a walk through an ice cave carved into the glacier. No, I’m not joking.
The Titlis Cliff Walk might sway dangerously as you step on it, but miss the walk and you’ll regret it forever.
We first tackle the Titlis Cliff Walk – no mean feat by any stretch of imagination – Europe’s highest suspension bridge at a height of 500m from touchable ground. It’s a steel structure that sways dangerously when you walk on it and you need nerves of steel to make it to and back. It’s always crowded, and many think it’s fun to stomp about to freak out the rest of the visitors, which perhaps adds to its crazy, but amazing, charm. It’s worth it though, because the views will leave you speechless. The sun bounces off the dazzling white, like you’re in the middle of grounds strewn with a billion diamonds, and you are on top of the world, looking down at tiny specks of civilization.
The Ice Flyer ride and the revolving Titlis Rotair offer up some unimpeded views.
The Ice Flyer ride is pretty cool too. You’re scooped up like human ice cream by a constantly moving bench, and as the protective bars come down, it sort of just floats downwards, and you have a 360-degree view of the entire massif and its surrounding areas. You catch up with blissful silence, the kind that eludes you back on earth, and that’s a moment, a feeling that stays with you forever – dangling mid-air over the Alps, kissed by a happy sun and discovering a paradise you’ve never known.