Europe is opening up again, and it feels great to be back in Switzerland, my favourite holiday destination. Most Britons think of it purely as a place for winter sports, but midsummer here is glorious. I’ve come here virtually every year for the last 20 years, and although it’s gorgeous in winter I like it even more in summertime. The wooded hills and lush green valleys are full of hikers and mountain bikers, but it’s easy to escape the crowds. Even in the busiest places, solitude is only a short walk away.
Switzerland has some of the most spectacular landscapes in the world, and the summers here are hot and sunny. The lakes are warm enough to swim in, yet the air remains fresh and cool. So why don’t more Brits come here in summer? After all, it was the British who virtually invented the Swiss tourist trade. One reason is our obsession with the seaside, but the main reason is money. When I first came here, in my teens, a pound was worth three Swiss Francs. Now it’s worth less than half of that. Yet although no-one would call it cheap, you get what you pay for. Travelling around Switzerland is always a pleasure, and after lockdown it feels especially good to be in a place that’s clean and safe, where everything runs like clockwork.
Despite its blingy reputation, Switzerland isn’t actually full of gourmet restaurants and grand hotels. The Swiss are an abstemious bunch, and most of them live fairly simply. Do what they do and it’s perfectly possible to have a splendid time here for a reasonable price. Stay half-board in a three-star hotel (more like a four-star in Britain) and eat your lunch in the local market. Swiss public transport is superb — far more efficient than it is in Britain, and cheaper too. The network covers the entire country, even the remotest areas. There’s no need to hire a car or hail a taxi. Wherever you’re headed, a train, bus, boat or tram will take you anywhere you want to go.
So where to go? Well, you’re bound to make your own discoveries, but if you fancy a few tips to get you started, here are a few of my favourite places. ‘In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance,’ said Orson Welles in The Third Man. ‘In Switzerland they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce?’ The cuckoo-clock.’ Welles was wrong, as usual: for a long time this was a warlike place, Swiss women weren’t allowed to vote until 1971, and cuckoo clocks come from Germany. Switzerland is far more peculiar than most people realise, and that’s part of what makes it so fascinating. I’m heading home next week, worst luck, but I’m already planning my next trip.
With one foot in France and one foot in Germany (both borders are only a few miles away) Basel is uniquely cosmopolitan, but the thing that makes it special is the Rhine. The mighty river flows through the city, and it’s safe to swim in, even in the heart of town. The city also boasts two of Europe’s finest galleries, the Kunstmuseum and the Fondation Beyeler, and two of my favourite hotels, Hotel Krafft and Les Trois Rois. Les Trois Rois is one of Europe’s oldest grand hotels. Hotel Krafft is a stylish boutique hotel, smart but understated. Both are on the riverbank. Why not split your stay between the two?
In January Davos becomes the most pompous place on the planet, when the World Economic Forum comes to town, but for the rest of the year it’s a pleasant, unpretentious resort, set amid stunning mountain scenery. You can see why the great German artist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner found solace here after the horrors of the First World War. There’s a marvellous museum devoted to his haunting paintings, and you can also do a walking trail around the Alpine huts where he stayed. Davos was the setting for Thomas Mann’s dreamlike meisterwerk, The Magic Mountain, and the hotels that inspired it, the Schatzalp and the Belvedere, are still going strong today.
Lucerne is a tourist trap, but even so you’d be mad to miss it. It’s the quintessential Swiss resort – a bustling city, a beautiful lake and a cluster of craggy mountains, all squeezed into the same place. Lucerne’s main attraction is the Angela Rosengart Museum, which houses a superb Picasso collection, but the best thing is its location, at the mouth of the Vierwaldstattersee, Switzerland’s most dramatic lake. You can walk along its leafy banks to Tribschen, the villa where Wagner wrote some of his greatest operas. It’s easy to understand why he found this romantic hideaway so beguiling.
Rorschach is a sleepy place, well off the tourist trail, but it’s an ideal base for touring one of Europe’s largest and loveliest lakes. Lake Constance, aka the Bodensee, is popular with Swiss, German and Austrian visitors (the southern shore is Swiss, the northern shore is German and the Austrians own the eastern end) but most Brits have never heard of it. They don’t know what they’re missing. The Bodensee is vast, 46 miles long and nine miles wide, and the antique ports along its shores are enchanting: Lindau (in Germany) and Bregenz (in Austria) are the pick of the bunch. Stay at Schloss Wartegg, an old castle in wooded grounds a short walk from the waterfront.
Lake Geneva is even bigger than the Bodensee, over 50 miles long and ten miles wide, but although it attracts a lot of tourists most of them don’t see the best of it. Sightseers gravitate to Montreux, the glitziest spot on the lake, but Vevey is a much better base. It’s an authentic market town, a place where Swiss people live and work rather than a holiday resort, but there’s still lots to see and do. The vieux ville is charming, and Le Manoir de Ban, the chateau where Charlie Chaplin spent the last 24 years of his life, is now a wonderful museum. If you’re feeling flush, stay at the Grand Hotel du Lac, where Anita Brookner set her eponymous novel.
A tour of Switzerland really isn’t complete without a visit to Zermatt. The Matterhorn, which towers over it, is one of the natural wonders of the world, and the (slightly) smaller peaks that surround it are great for scrambling and hiking. At a dizzy altitude of 1600m, this bustling little town is the highest ski-resort in Switzerland, but although winter is high season it’s lively all year round. You can take the cable car right up to the glacier, at 3800m. Stay at the Monte Rosa, the historic hotel where Victorian mountaineers like Edward Whymper (who first scaled the Matterhorn) used to rest up between climbs.