Walking and trekking
Switzerland is a country of quirks: some say it is one of the most conservative countries of Europe, some say that beneath the veneer of sensibility it is the opposite, but there is one thing at which this country is quite literally the peak of its game.
Currently, Switzerland is about the size of Wales. But if the country was pulled flat, it’s land area would equal six times that of Great Britain, which means this little country has a hell of a lot of bumps in it. Geographically it is divided into three major areas which are of interest to the walker: the Swiss Jura, the Swiss Mittelland and the Swiss Alps. The Jura are in the north-west of the country and cover about a tenth of Switzerland, and are like conservative versions of the Dolomites: low, limestone mountains that seldom exceed the far beyond the height of Ben Nevis. The highest is Le Crêt de la Neige at 1,720m, with other highpoints such as Mont Tendre (1679m) Le Chasseron (1606m) and Le Chasseral (1607m). Interestingly, the area is central to the production of Swiss watches, so you will find surprisingly large towns high in the mountains. Walking in this region offers a slice of what might be considered classic Switzerland: this mountain range is set in fine surroundings of pastured meadow and thick forest, which extends across the border into France. The scenery is sumptuous, peppered with lakes such as the Lac de Bienne, bergeries (simple mountain houses) where you can sleep on straw if that takes your fancy, plenty of places to sample the cheese for which areas of the Jura are famous for before kicking back with a glass of wine wherever you end up. But what this range is most outstanding for is as a pleasantly achieved lookout for some of the world’s most famous mountains. For this reason, the most popular walk hereabouts is the Weissenstein. This range of marble mountains form the southern wall of the Jura from which you can gaze out at the Swiss Alps across the basin of the Swiss Mitelland, which divides the two ranges. Get to the 1397m summit of the Röti, and you have spellbinding views across to the Bernese Oberland – home to the Jungfrau, the Schreckhorn and the Eiger.
But we’ll get to them. Firstly, the bit in the middle. The Swiss Mitelland doesn’t have an awful lot to offer the walker in a country with such an abundance of the spectacular, but the area in the South-west has some gems that are worth exploring.
The Fribourg Pre-Alps and Vaud Pre Alps offers exciting limestone peaks weathered into extraordinary, jagged shapes by Alpine precipitation, with great views to Lake Geneva and the Oberland. Montreaux acts as a great base for both of these areas, with great walks such as the Col de Chaude, Tour de Famelon and the Les Mortays taking in 2000m peaks and offering awesome aspects on deep valleys and the higher peaks nearby, including Mont Blanc. Further Alpward in the Vaud area, the mountains begin to get huge in the Muverans and Les Diablerets massifs, both of which hold 3000m+ peaks which then merge into the snowline as the Alps heave skyward.
The Swiss Alps need no introduction: they are a synonym for mountain perfection all over the world, and don’t disappoint up close. The ‘Swiss Alps’ make up over half of Switzerland beneatha roughly South-west-North-east track, and comprise of many different ranges, including the Bernese Alps, the Glarner Alps, the Bundner Alps and the Pennine Alps. The most accessible are the Bernese Alps (or Bernese Oberland), either from Brig in the south or – more impressively – Grindelwald in the north. At the centre is the Jungfrau region, home to the giants of the range: the notorious Eiger (3,970m), the Monch (3,887m) and the Jungfrau (4158m). This is a heavily glaciated landscape, and many routes amongst these massive peaks require the skills to negotiate glaciers or a guide to do it for you, but there are thousands of well-marked trails which take the walker past thundering rivers of meltwater, rocky spurs and ridges and through the heavily wooded valleys if the high peaks aren’t your thing. And if you’d rather gawp constantly, the famously chasmic north walls of the Schreckhorn, the Wetterhorn and the Eiger can be viewed from the Faulhornweg walk, which is one of the regions most encompassing walks. It’s the diversity of the walking on offer here which gives the area the reputation of giving a full-spectrum Alpine experience: it just doesn’t get any better. The highest peak in Switzerland is Dufourspitze (4,634m), in the Monte Rosa massif on the border with Italy. An island of jumbled peaks amidst swirling glaciers, unsurprisingly there is no easy way up, but determined mountaineers with experience climbing moderate grade rock and ice can achieve its summit, in a long day from the Monte Rosa hut and look down the Macugnaga wall into Italy – the largest rock wall in Europe with a drop of 2,600m. There is something else you can look down on from here, too – but if you start the Monte Rosa trek from Zermatt, you’ve already seen it from its best side.
The Matterhorn ( is more perfect, much bigger and a hell of a lot harder looking that you imagine – one of last of the major Alps to fall through incospr-sharp intimidation rather than difficulty. At 4,478m it’s one of the highest mountains in Switzerland, and is usually climbed via the Hörnli route from Zermatt. Don’t even think about doing this one without a guide.
Skiing, skiing and more skiing. Switzerland is justly famous for its resorts, and the opulence of St Moritz or Verbier is bolstered by the fact that nearby lie some of the best slopes in the world. Other, smaller areas such as Zermatt or Grindelwald are also popular with the winter sports crowd, but offer equal pull for climbers and hikers and the tantalising prospect of cross-country skiing on some of the illustrious alpine routes that spiral out from them. Switzerland is a famously conservative, but there is plenty to occupy all but the most hedonistic. The Montreaux Jazz Festival is a world-famous event which showcases groove from a variety of music styles, and usually takes place in July. Extreme sports are also taking off in Switzerland, such as bungee jumping: a fine place to try this is off the Verzasca Dam, the highest ground-based bungee jump in the world, as done by James Bond at the beginning of Goldeneye. Kayaking is popular on Lake Constance, where you can canoe between three countries (Switzerland, Germany and Austra) on the lake. You could also try sledging; at Cresta, a suicidal-looking activity is to sledge down an ice-trough on a sheet of metal in the manner of a bobsledder, but without the bobsleigh. Not for the sane.
And of the big cities, the pick is probably Zurich, which is the most populous and culturally diverse of the Swiss cities. If it’s nightlife you’re after, this is about as un-conservative as Switzerland gets.
Switzerland doesn’t have an army: FALSE. Switzerland in fact has one of the largest armies per capita of any country in Europe, despite having not been to war in 500 years.
The ‘ch’ abbreviation is rooted in latin. TRUE. It is an abbreviation of Confoederatio Helvetica, Switzerland’s hitorical title.
Must see and do
- Take the train into the Eiger It’s the closest most of us will ever get to climbing the North Face. www.jungfraubahn.ch
- Eyeball the Matterhorn You’ll want to go to Zermatt for this.
- Get the best mountain view in the world Get to Grindelwald and climb to the top of the Schilthorn yo look across at the Eiger and the Jungfrau.
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