Switzerland: Will winter wonders work?
DOES it make sense to go west during winter months, while Europeans are heading in the opposite direction to enjoy a tropical sun holiday?
At first I wondered, too, what could be so appealing about freezing temperatures and a blanket of white snow covering what should have been green meadows and wild flowers.
But there are sound reasons for the migration. We head west to see snow something impossible to find in Southeast Asia, while Europeans head west to enjoy a brilliant tropical sun in the middle of December.
Snowy winter holidays are not for everyone in Asia either. Japan, Korea and China all have more than their fair share of snow and Japan has some of the greatest ski fields in the world.
That’s the challenge of the latest Swiss International Air Lines campaign to convince Asians there are plenty of sound reasons to holiday in Switzerland in the dead of winter.
It’s a campaign that fits well in Southeast Asia where there are plenty of travellers who want to visit Europe, but are there are enough plus points for them to splash the cash on a tour to Switzerland during the winter?
The airline invited a group of media and travel agents to brave the chills of snowy Switzerland to find out.
Personally, after the experience, I voted for travels to a white-washed Switzerland. I guess the magic of winter cast a spell on me. Yes, it was freezing and there were times I felt like a leg of lamb frozen in a huge freezer, but it was so different to home that I could actually enjoy the experience. Before embarking on the trip the weather forecast noted Europe was having a cold snap. It freaked me out. I thought 10 degree Celsius was extreme cold not -20 to -30 C on Klein Matterhorn. Brrrrrr.
Ah, but if it is a normal winter (what is that?) the cold is not so sharp and it can be quite tolerable. That’s what the airline told us, with a little warning for good measure.
Do pack warm clothes including hats, socks, gloves and good walking shoes. A heavy fur coat is not necessary, but if more visits to the northern hemisphere are likely, it is good to invest in outdoor gear. Otherwise, wear several layers of lighter clothing.
When indoors, due to the super high standard of living in Switzerland we were toasted by the heating in the floors, in the walls, pumping out of air-conditioners and running through the plumbing to radiators. So welcome to winter in Europe and the constant activity of adding or taking off layers of woollies to adjust to the vast swings in temperatures between the outside and inside worlds of Switzerland.
Sneaking into shops was the main pastime to escape the cold when walking in town. I liked the air conditioned department store for this amenity. Buying something was not even on the agenda. We were warming out, having reached our maximum chill zone.
In contrast to the vivid colours of summer, we quickly recognise that winter is a variation of black and white shades. If you are lucky, pure white after a fresh fall of snow, but it can turn to grey or a slushy charcoal in towns. What is more beautiful than a dazzling white carpet of snow covering an entire valley, interrupted only by a single black cart trail merging with a streaky charcoal tree line?
Riding high in a cable car, we can view the white carpet and the black mountain peaks peeping through. It is so peaceful as the layer of snow deadens the sound.
Your holiday will be far more rewarding if you ski. Switzerland is the Mecca for European skiers, who snatch up packages that offer transfers from the airports, daily ski runs and accommodation in full-board chalets. The holidays come with butlers and each chalet as its own cook who prepares a daily menu and selects the post ski wines.
Well we are not skiers so we miss all the fun and have to make do gazing at the snowy scenery.
Then we discover there are a host of other snow related sports that are not so difficult to learn and enjoy.
They include tobogganing or sledging, snow shoeing, winter hiking and snow tubing. Or if you like, you can learn to ski.
At mountain resorts, they offer all snow related activities, but each place has its own characteristics. We check out a few places.
So, is it depressing to be in a permanent state of chill? Not at all. Usually in the high mountains the sky is a brilliant blue without a cloud in sight. It will stay that way until a snow storm blows through. Keep your fingers crossed.
Once you are out of the cities, hotel costs go up as you have to stay at ski resorts and they have a very short season to make a profit.
In a nutshell, winter travel can be enjoyed by anyone even the elderly as long as you are mobile and can deal with cold and are reasonably healthy. We are not going live here even if the visa officer at the consulate thought so. We are here for a week and snow and chilly weather is a novelty.
From Zurich, we waste no time and head off to the frozen Zermatt. About 250 km to the south, the travel time is three and a half hours including the train change in Visp.
The remote-village-turned- tourism-hub is located at an altitude of 1,620 m and nestles under the mountains peaks that rise 4,000 metres high. There are fantastic views from Zermatt and the town is all the better for not allowing cars to spoil its environment.
Zermatt is best known for its mountain grandeur during all seasons. The famous pyramid-shaped Matterhorn is even more serene in the winter.
To get a jaw-dropping 360 degree view of the glacier world, Matterhorn and other peaks, take a cable car up to Klein Matterhorn or Glacier Paradise. This is Europe’s highest cable car station at 3,820 metres (3,883 m at the peak). Also, you can visit the Glacier Palace, a world under the glacier for curiosity if the outside is not cold enough.
A train trip to Gornergrat (3,089 masl), an Alpline ridge, also offers equally superb views including the highest in the region– Monte Rosa to Italy’s border.
One station down at Rotenboden, we go tobogganing. Zermatt has only one tobogganing marked trail, 1.6 km from Rotenboden to Riffelberg, from 2,819 to 2,582 metres above sea level.
It is supposed to be much easier than skiing, which requires high movement and balancing skills. But it turns out to be quite challenging on the bends.
The instructor explains we have to use our feet to brake and we need to shift our weight left or right to steer.
I strongly recommend you practice first before going down even the gentle slope. Further down the trail there are hair-raising descents and hairpin bends that are risky. You can easily roll over or slide off the track. The upside is the snow is soft, but watch out the safety fences or other that are in front of you.
The rental sledge at Rotenboden station is made of metal so it is heavy and the heaviness makes it trickier to shift your weight. It also descends much faster. The smaller wooden toboggan are lighter and slower, a better choice for novices.
Skiers note that the area boasts a vast area for skiing totaling 245 km of marked pistes (ski runs). The longest run, 13 km is from the Klein Matterhorn at 3,820 metres into town.
Non-skiers who would like to learn can join tuition course here, but because this resort is major in the mountains league, Zermatt may not be an ideal spot for a timid novice. It suits those who have skied before and need to improve their skills.
Zermatt has five marked snowshoe trails ranging from around 1.5 to 7 km but we do not get to try them.
From Zermatt, we go west to Montreaux in Lake Geneva region, about 150 km away, again via Visp. It takes two hours and 40 minutes by train. Montreaux lakeside is usually crowed in spring and summer and remarkably quiet in winter.
Montreux and Vevey
We have a free afternoon to check out nearby attractions – Chillon Castle and Vevey.
Chateau de Chillon or Castle of Chillon, 4 km south of Montreux, is a gigantic stone complex on a rock island originally used as a residence, fortress, arsenal and prison from the 12th century until the end of World War II.
The rocky island, on which the castle stands, was a strategic location to control the passage between northern and southern Europe.
Overshadowed by its bigger sister Montreaux, Vevey is only 5 km northwest along the shore of Lake Geneva. Most people will wonder where the town is and what is interesting about it. But if we say Nestlé, the diary product giant and Chalie Chaplin then we all understand.
Nestlé has its head office here and milk chocolate has been produced in Vevey since 1875.
In 1953, the famous comedian, Charlie Chaplin, chose exile in Vevey and lived here for his last 25 years. Today, there is a square named in his honor and a statue erected on the lake front depicting him in his most famous role of the Tramp. His final residence is now destined to become the “Charlie Chaplin Heritage Site”.
Vevey is only 2.4 sq km in size and has 14 structures that are listed as Swiss heritage sites of national significance including museums, churches a castle, city hall and a hotel.
Its old town is lovely to stroll through offering countless shopping ideas including Poyet, a chocolatier that invented Tom Yum Kung chocolate in 2009 from his impressions of a menu when he visited Thailand.
During winter, the town has an open-air ice skate rink, Vevey-sur-Glace near the lake shore.
(Part two of this winter survey next edition).