An insider’s guide to Switzerland

Switzerland is a stunning country - standing at the heart of western Europe both geographically and metaphorically. It has embraced its diversity by having three main language areas. On a visit this summer I found each region offers a very different travel experience.

As one wise Swiss national told me, “We bicker a lot. We German Swiss always say the French Swiss don’t work hard enough. The Italian Swiss take too many siestas, leaving the German-speakers to shoulder more of the work. The others complain that we German speakers argue too much. But we’re a very pragmatic lot and find a way to make it all work.”

The net that keeps the whole ensemble together is Swiss Rail. By any standard it is an engineering work of art. No matter where you wish to go, a train will take you there. Or there will be an express train leaving soon to whisk you across the country and, once you get close, you can switch to a mountain cog railway, a lake ferry, or even a light rail/tram that takes you to the tiniest villages. Everything runs precisely on time just like... a Swiss watch.

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Italian region
Ticino is the heartland of Italian Switzerland and the main city is Lugano. This is Switzerland with palm trees and, in summer, a steamy climate that has more in common with nearby Milan than Swiss cities to the north of the Alps. Everywhere you look, Ticino’s Italian influence is prominent. Houses in villages clinging to cliffs above Lake Lugano and fountains sparkling in a town square reveal a distinctly Italianate flair.

For those seeking wide-ranging activity Ticino is ideal. The canton extends from palm trees to glaciers and summer is so hot that the mountain trails make a pleasant cool change. It is still Switzerland of course so there are well-marked and well-planned walking trails and bike paths.

The ideal way to travel between Ticino and Zurich is by the William Tell Express boat. Enjoy this experience after a train trip under the alps through the 15km Gotthard Tunnel that was drilled through the mountains in the 1880s. The lake journey is anything but express and is named after the hero of Swiss liberation. From Flüelen to Lucerne a beautiful old paddlewheeler plies the narrow and winding waters of Lake Lucerne, past attractive towns and villages with towering mountains behind and the everlasting snows of the Alps as a misty backdrop.

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German region
By far the greatest chunk of Switzerland is German-speaking: native German speakers make up 64 per cent of the population compared to 20 per cent French, six per cent Italian and less than one percent Romansh. At school everyone has to learn one of the other national languages and most learn English, too.

Zurich and its surrounds are home to some two million of Switzerland’s eight million people. The language is German, the city is stylish and the shopping is great. Much of the traditional fashion shopping is along Bahnhofstrasse between the railway station and Lake Zurich. Here you’ll find Bally and a series of remarkable watch shops. The Sprungli café has amazing hot chocolates. The picturesque old lanes towards the river are lined with quality craft and design shops.

Across the river, the winding Niederdorfstrasse is a much younger scene with street stalls and cafes, live music and bustling crowds. Any illusions that Zurich is a staid and stuffy city will be smashed out here. The old industrial area of west Zurich and Hardbrücke is being reborn, too. Here you’ll find one of the best of Zurich’s modern restaurants – La Salle is within a disused ship building works amongst theatres and galleries.

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French region
With the Italian and German parts of Switzerland fresh in my mind, I headed west towards the Fribourg and the French zone. My train swished past stereotypical Swiss scenery of neat farms with charming barns and coiffeured cows, pristine lakes and sharp, snowy mountain peaks as I crossed the country.

I guess setting out to walk the Gruyère trail should suggest a food theme but I’d never considered its many strands. Staying at a spa resort in Charmey, I took the gondola up to the small ski area of Vounetz. At the top of the lift I was greeted by the sound of cow bells and a farmhouse where generations have supplied milk for cheese. Inevitably, the meal was a cheese fondue. Back in town, I visited a cheese cellar where huge wheels of cheese were ageing in racks.

The next day’s trail led past gem-like lakes and across tiny streams, with rarely a glimpse of a road. In the unlikely event that the perfect signage let us down, the free Swiss Hike app in my iPhone showed exactly where I was and where I was going, my progress and a contour map of more than a kilometre each side of the trail.

If you have an iPhone and an interest in walking, whether for an hour or a week, go to MySwitzerland.com and download the free Swiss Hike app. At this site you’ll also find city guides, snow reports and podcasts.

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Just before lunch the trail plunged into the narrow defile of the Jaun Gorge where our path even led through a few dark tunnels. Eventually, I emerged into the sunshine on Lac de la Gruyère and came upon a chocolate factory. Perfect. The Cailler Chocolate Factory opened in 1898 and is the oldest in Switzerland. Now owned by Nestle, the factory tour is genuinely interesting as it shows how chocolate was a way to wealth for a poor dairy farming nation. It concludes, of course, with the opportunity to sample every type of chocolate Cailler makes. No wonder Switzerland has the highest chocolate consumption in the world – over 12kg per person each year.

It’s hard to imagine a better end to a strenuous walk than lunch in the medieval town of Gruyères, a line of ancient buildings following a ridge to the eponymous castle that was built in 1270. The castle’s gardens and the views over the countryside are rewarding as the baroque interior. With a glass of wine in hand, it’s a good place to plan the next walk – perhaps climbing nearby Mt Moléson or strolling down to the next cheese museum.

Each of Switzerland’s three main language regions reward exploration and it is undoubtedly the best country in the world for ease of travel. After a summer holiday traversing Switzerland’s lakes, mountains and cities it will be hard to resist returning in winter when the ski mountains are open and the towns become a visual fantasy of snow and icicles.

Swiss International Air Lines are a Star Alliance member and offer flights from Australia to Zurich with connections through Bangkok, Singapore or Hong Kong. Perfect, ubiquitous rail travel combined with easy one-way bike rental, buses and trams, ferries, even hiking trails make flights and car rentals redundant. In fact, all you need is a Swiss Pass, perhaps as part of more general Eurail Pass

For a wealth of information about Switzerland click here.

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