At the risk of sounding close-minded, I wasn’t really excited about visiting Switzerland when the opportunity came along not too long ago. Bollywood has done it to death and freezing leading ladies draped in chiffon never appealed to me. I love nature, particularly mountains and melting snowtops in spring, but I felt like the country wouldn’t have anything new for me, having been overexposed to its charms via television, film, literature and the internet.
But I was wrong, and my assumption about how I’d feel when I get to this little Alpine country was so far off the mark, I decided I needed a whole other vacation to rediscover myself.
I will shout from the rooftops that Switzerland’s greatest secret is its wine, which isn’t exported. So, your best bet is to bring home as many bottles as you can. Disclaimer: Indian customs may present hurdles against that possibility, so the next best bet is to drink as much as possible while you explore Switzerland’s unparalleled natural beauty. The chill and clean air will keep you on your feet longer than India’s tiresome humidity.
My introduction to Swiss wine happens on a cold, grey afternoon in Lugano, a little city in the south, in Ticino, bordering Italy. We are lunching at La Rucola in Grand Hotel Villa Castagnola, and with my delicious grilled rib-eye served with a fresh Mediterranean salad, I taste one of the best reds ever.
Now, I have a thing for younger, fruitier wines, so perhaps my bar is in a completely different territory from yours. But Ticino’s Merlots have a formidable reputation and mine certainly lives up to it. It’s soft-bodied but incredibly full on the palate, fruity and fragrant, cultivated and bottled at a teensy winery just up the road from the villa. I don’t ask for its name though; some things are best remembered for how they make us feel.
The 74-room Villa Castagnola is like an emperor’s residence lavishly spread along Lake Lugano’s shoreline, at the foot of Monte Bre. Its origins can be traced back to 1880s, when a Russian family built it as their winter residence and later sold it to a Swiss family, which opened it up as a hotel. In 1982, the current owners, the Garzonis, bought it, restored the heritage building and lovingly displayed their priceless art collection. Villa Castagnola’s Michelin-star restaurant, Restaurant Gallery Arté al Lago, doubles as a gallery that houses striking paintings and sketches by anonymous and famous artists.
A persistent drizzle envelops the city during my entire trip, leaving little room for sightseeing and a lot of time for indulging culinary fantasies. At The View Lugano, an ultra-modern hotel lodged into the San Salvatore rockface and overlooking Lugano, the menu at its only restaurant, Innocenti Evasioni, combines classic with postmodern with pizzazz. My salad is fresh as just picked from the gardens, while the lamb poached with plums is as comforting as a mother’s hug on a teeth-chattering night. As days wear on, Merlot and Reisling become my faithful companions — they seem crisper and fresher thanks to the Alpine environs — especially paired with fantastic food.
Then, there’s the evening we spend at Ristorante Seven Easy in Ascona, which, in my opinion, deserves another Michelin star for its consistently perfect food and woody warm ambience. Committed to getting fundamental Mediterranean cuisine right, their pizza is a gooey mouthful of cheese and meat, while the prawns in olive oil taste of the sea. Ever the pepper lover, I fall in love with a fiery infused olive oil they make in-house, and the chef happily hands over a huge bottle for me to use back home. That, and faux-fur chairs when you come in from the cold give real meaning to warm fuzzy nights. It’s a pity we barely stay in Ascona but I’m thankful for the quiet exploration of its winding alleys that all seem to flow into the main promenade like rivers into the sea. Rising from Lake Maggiore in Locarno, the idyllic town, however, is better known for its annual jazz festival, among the highlights of European summers.
From Lugano, we make a magnificent two-part journey to Lucerne in the German-speaking region of Switzerland on-board the panoramic Wilhelm-Tell Express. The train winds its way up and down the Alps streaked with small waterfalls fed by melting snow to reach Fluelen, where we board a boat. It’s a spectacular day, and sunlight rides the waves of the emerald Lake Lucerne as we sail across it.
Located in central Switzerland, Lucerne is as old as time, but its youthful buzz is addictive. My view of the lake and the mountains that rise into the sky far away in the horizon from the balcony of the Palace Hotel Luzern makes me envy the Swiss with a vengeance. When the sun sets around 10 pm, everything lights up in crimson flames and there’s music everywhere — in Switzerland, its ubiquity is a summer trait because everyone can be outdoors.
I enjoy a walking tour of the city’s main attractions in the company of a brilliant guide, who can speak six languages and has biked across much of the Himalayas. However, among the many stories she tells highlighting the astonishing depth of Swiss history and its humanity, my favourite remains that of a medieval apothecary with a cure for everything but a broken heart. Declared boldly in Latin on the building’s façade, it will forever remind me of our fragility as living beings, and the futility of denying it.
Epiphanies aside, Switzerland is 'The Ultimate European Destination' for most Indians, whose indiscipline is unfortunately legendary. While waiting to get on to cable cars at Mt Titlis, Engelberg, I’m appalled at the complete disregard for queues — our pet peeve. What’s more, the staff appear familiar with such behaviour. This is where Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge was shot in the previous century — I’m about as romantic as a beaver, but it’s still an institution — and my nostalgia goes up in smoke with embarrassment. Also, I wasn’t prepared for the life-size cutout of Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol on top of the mountain. Thank heavens for the sweeping views of valleys below to knock me speechless.
The intensely steep ride down in a swinging cable car pushes my heart into my mouth, so I fall back on the steadfastness of good food and drink. Swiss yodeling is hilarious fun, and Stadtkeller — totally touristy and worth every paisa — is where drunk visitors gulp beer like water, eat rosti and fondue thick with wine and dance like Swiss peasants during harvest season. When an old lady, presumably traveling to celebrate her retirement, drinks right from the tap, I know everything will turn out okay.
Sobriety is for stuck-ups and this tiny mountain country is anything but sober.
Updated Date: Apr 09, 2017 10:43 AM