7 mins

Taking the high road: a grand tour of Switzerland’s peaks and best bits

The Grand Tour takes you through Switzerland's best bits, soaking up alpine passes and pristine lakes along the way. Phoebe Smith spends a night in a hay barn, explores pond-filled caves and journeys along dramatic mountain roads on this sun-dappled Swiss adventure

Furka Pass mountain road, Switzerland (Dreamstime)
Bonjour!” I cried out in the best Gallic accent I could muster, yet still the woman looked at me blankly. I thought for a second or two. “J’ai une réservation pour une nuit…” I looked up, only to see her shaking her head slowly. “Ich verstehe nicht,” she replied. Ah, I realised with a heavy heart. She was speaking German. Not French. It may sound like a rather schoolgirl error to attempt to converse with a local in the wrong language, but then the thing was, I hadn’t actually crossed a single country border. In fact, a mere ten minutes earlier I had gathered directions to find this farmhouse using French. Welcome to Switzerland.

Don’t be fooled. Nothing about this nation is small. True, it might be around one-sixth the size of the UK but, as I was discovering, it had the look and feel of a much bigger country (and, as I would discover when I arrived home, equally large speeding fines to match). I was driving a new route called the Grand Tour, which comprises a loop of 1,600km as well as several off shoots and detours. Its aim is to encompass the best of the country – a kind of greatest hits, if you will.

As someone who has dipped in and out of Switzerland many times, courtesy of its handy hubs in both Zürich and Geneva, I thought I had a good grasp of the country. But with the promise of four linguistic regions, 11 UNESCO properties, two biosphere reserves, five alpine passes, 22 lakes and a collection of seriously cool places to spend the night (more on that later), I was willing to challenge myself to be surprised, and ready to hit the road.

Creux du Van (Neil S Price)

I began in Geneva with an obligatory stroll around the maze-like streets of the old town, followed by a meander along the lakeside, watching its famous fountain spurt. Fuelling up on coffee and attempting my first stab at French, I picked up my car and looked for the first red Grand Tour shield, to lead me out of the metropolis. I made my way clockwise along the route, heading north east to spend the night in a tower. But before I got there, one stop was practically crying out at me – Switzerland’s ‘Grand Canyon’.

Calved by glacial action and water erosion many thousands of years ago, Creux du Van is in fact a giant quartzite cirque; a vast rocky amphitheatre affording a rather loose impersonation of its US counterpart. My curiosity was stirred, though, and after strolling a few minutes through a fairly unremarkable looking field, it suddenly presented itself, as its dramatic 160m-deep rock face dropped away at my feet. All around its rim grew Arctic-Alpine flora, which I took my time to wander through, stopping every few metres to enjoy the changing perspective on this rocky amphitheatre.

My next stop couldn’t have been more different. From the naturally formed to the man-made – I bedded down a little later at La Tourelle (the turret), a small two-level folly that looked, for all the world, like someone had lopped-off the tip of a castle – though it had begun life as an ice house back in 1898. Sat on its roof, I watched the stars as the wild boar stirred in the forest below. So far, I mused, so grand.

While the Grand Tour is marked by signs, I adopted a very free-and-easy approach to navigating it. If something took my fancy, I didn’t think twice about leaving it to explore further. It happened first the following day at Fribourg, a medieval city with wonderful cobbled streets and the only funicular railway in the world run on waste water. Then again in Gruyères.

For cheese fans, the name is instantly familiar, and I spent a happy lunchtime learning all about how this 18th-century staple was made – from the wild flowers used in the cows’ diet (to get the flavour right), to the sheer volume of milk needed to make a single 35kg truckle of cheese (400L in case you wondered).

I gorged on the end result then, for dessert, drove a few kilometres north to reach Maison Cailler – the famous Swiss chocolaterie that created milk chocolate in 1875, when it used powdered milk by then local baby-food manufacturer Nestlé to make sweet history. After eating my body weight in dark, white and, of course, milk chocolate, I took to the wheel to head for my next quirky sleep – a hay barn in Bäderalp.

Reflective pond inside St Beatus Caves (Neil S Price)

It was here that I learned that the language had shifted to German, and that a night in a hay barn wasn’t the kind of glamping option where you discovered a four-poster bed made of pristine bales of hay. Here it was literally a barn with lots of hay in it, set on a fully functioning dairy farm with only cows for my neighbours. I could smell them as I stuffed the supplied pillowcases with straw and fashioned a mattress as best I could, then covered it with blankets.

I thought I’d sleep badly, but it turned out that I must have been born in a barn, because it was the best night’s sleep I enjoyed all trip. I awoke to the sound of cowbells and went upstairs for breakfast, where my host brought in coffee and milk fresh from the udder – the cows were being milked in the shed that abutted the kitchen – which she sieved into my cup. All the cheeses were made there in her kitchen, as were the jams and marmalades. We couldn’t speak a word between us, due to my lack of German and her lack of French, but somehow we communicated and laughed, and I was actually sad to leave.

That days’ drive saw me continue roughly north-east, bound for Lucerne. En route I passed through the pretty, castle-rich town of Spiez on Lake Thun, stopped a while to watch the paragliders at Interlaken (access point for Grindelwald and the famous Eiger), then paused to visit St Beatus Caves, a 6th-century hermitage found high up inside the rock face.

It was a steep climb to reach the entrance, where a gift shop and café rewarded my efforts, but the sun-dappled view down to the lake made up for it. Minutes later, I followed the walkway into the mountain’s interior and the temperature dropped dramatically. Stretching for over a kilometre, the entire cavern was filled with stalactites over 100 years in the making.

I gawped at the reflective pools, squinted to make out the shape of a dragon’s head in the rock (St Beatus was said to have fought a dragon) and gasped at its waterfall, the torrent from which echoed with a roar so loud that I had to cover my ears. The walk took about half an hour one-way, but when the site was rediscovered in the 1800s, it took the cavers hours of exploration to chart.

The castle at Spiez on Lake Thun (Neil S Price)

Back on the road, a storm broke out when I passed through the capital of Bern, its winding streets looking ethereal and foreboding through the mist. I continued through, stopping for some more well-timed cheese at Emmental, where I learned its distinctive holes were formed by oxygen from enzymes, and not hungry mice.

There were more snacks at Kambly biscuit factory (with its dangerous all-you-can-eat samples), before ending in a rather more conventional stopover than St Beatus’ cave, a hotel on the edge of Lake Lucerne. From Lucerne, the Grand Tour heads first south, then north to Zürich and up towards Lake Constance. Having seen both many times, I decided to cut out a corner of it and head straight for a place called Bad Ragaz. It may not be immediately familiar, but I wasn’t interested in the town itself, rather a single homestead just outside it with links to an extremely special little girl…

Here you can visit the house where Heidi, the fictional orphan girl who lived with her moody grandfather in the Swiss hills, was created by author Johanna Spyri in 1881. Having read the book and watched a cartoon of it when I was little, it was with slight trepidation that I took the walking trail up to the farmhouse.

I spent a while in the small museum first, amazed to see how many iterations and adaptations Spyri’s book had spawned around the world. Outside was a petting farm, and there was a slightly cheesy imagining of Heidi’s house (as lifted from the books), but the farmhouse itself felt authentic.

And as I paced its creaky wooden floorboards and the yodelling theme song from the 1970s animated series The Story of Heidi played through the rooms, I felt like a little girl once more. But it was soon time to leave childish things behind, so I got back behind the wheel and set out for something altogether more grownup, and which this area of Switzerland is famous for: its vineyards.

“We are a really small region,” said Patrick Adank, whose father founded their eponymous winemaking business 35 years ago. “They call us Little Burgundy here in Fläsch, as we produce so much Pinot Noir.” He gestured up at the cliffs, where vines protruded from the very rocks themselves. “It can be hard here, and we’ve had so much rain that it means the grapes often ripen too fast,” he explained.

As if on cue, a storm started pelting the windows with hail. As I tasted the reds, he talked about how everything was still done by hand, with the only mechanical process being bottling and labelling. Grabbing a bottle, I left for the village of Jenins, where, rather aptly, I would be sleeping in my very own converted wine barrel. The rain continued well into the night. But I spent a happy – and rather tipsy – evening eating fondue made at the farm of Schlaf-Fass, on which my giant barrel sat, and sampling my wine made just down the valley. If sleeping in a wine barrel drinking wine was something of a high, my next drive, heading south into St Moritz, was to become its physical manifestation.

It started with me making my way over a mountain pass, where the rain – still falling – now turned to snow. The mountains were caked in it, and when I rolled down my window to get a better look, I felt the icy chill of winter seep inside – despite this being July. I continued all the way to the town, where I left the car to take a train up the mountainside that overlooked Switzerland’s most famous ski resort.

At the top – 2,500m up – sat a small 16-room hotel with views down the Alpine valley of Engadine. Over dinner, I chatted to the waiter, from whom I gathered that I had now passed into another linguistic zone: that of Romansh, a language derived from the informal Latin of the Middle Ages and mixed with German (plus a hearty helping of the Bavarian dialect).

The main upshot, I mused as I watched the lights twinkle down in St Moritz, was that I was never going to be able to understand a single word of it. I was rendered speechless again – though not, this time, due to my lack of ability to speak the local language – when I saw the sunrise from my mountain viewpoint the next morning, as mist swirled around the surrounding summits. I wandered for a while on the Panorama trail alongside Alpine ibex, listening to the marmots whistle nearby, before descending into the valley.

A night inside the hillside Whitepods in Les Giettes (Neil S Price)

It was to be my last glimpse of snow for the next 24 hours, as I was now headed firmly south to Locarno, the Italian part of Switzerland. All day, I felt like I was guided by the sunlight, the snow-capped mountains replaced by rolling green hills covered with vines and tea plantations. A road sign pointed for the Italian border as I swung into Lugano and its cluster of brightly painted houses.

One turned out to be my villa, overlooking the distinctly Italian-named Lago Maggiore – in case I was in any doubt of the language change. I filled the afternoon by taking the cable car up Cardada mountain. Even at its 1,671m summit it was hot – a world away from St Moritz. From here I could, rather uniquely, see the country’s highest point (the Dufourspitze) and its lowest (Ascona) in a single vista.

And hearing “Ciao!” and “Bella!” as I made my way back to town, it was hard to believe I was still in the same country as when I set out that morning. It wasn’t long before I was the one saying “Ciao”, as I rejoined the Grand Tour to head north, then west once more. Though leaving the glamour of the Italian side, I was definitely headed for A-list scenery. For here, the route takes in winding, dramatic mountain roads such as the Tremola (a cobbled stretch) and the Furka Pass, better known as ‘James Bond Road’ since it featured in the 1964 film Goldfinger.

Humming the movie’s theme tune very loudly, I gleefully swerved my way up and around the pass’s hairpins, imagining I was in a silver Aston Martin, as opposed to the more bog-standard VW in which I found myself. I stopped to recreate the Bond pose, halted at the height of#the pass to watch the steam train cleave its way along the bottom, then paused for a stroll to see the 7km Rhône Glacier that sits by the roadside, and in which you can wander inside an ice grotto– currently used for chilling locally made wine. Back down in the valley, and further along to the west, I decided on one more stop, at a small town called Martigny.

Here I found a museum dedicated to the St Bernard dog, named after the saint that is said to protect the pass – Grand St Bernard – just above it. This is the oldest route in the western Alps, and where a hostel run by monks still helps hikers and skiers in distress. Thankfully, I wouldn’t be needing their help to reach my last sleep. Up in a tiny hamlet called Les Giettes, where I finally regained my ability to converse in basic French, I was going to enjoy my final night in a Whitepod – a geodesic see-through bubble tent.

Nearly at the end of my Grand Tour, with just a short drive back to Geneva and its airport the next day, it was the perfect place to spend the evening. Overlooking mountains, perched high above the valley floor, I could see the road weaving its way through the country far below. This was a greatest hits if ever there was one. Simply parfait, perfekt, perfect, perfezionare – no matter which language you choose to say it in.


The author was a guest of Switzerland Tourism’s Switzerland Travel Centre, who also offer packages, trains and air tickets. For sales, contact stc.co.uk. The Grand Tour is available as part of a bookable package.

Main image: Furka Pass mountain road, Switzerland (Dreamstime)

Related Articles