Thought you’d seen all of Switzerland? You haven’t. Prepare yourself for a country that takes you from Enid Blyton to James Bond, where forbidden liquors thrive, and where (yes) horses try to eat your car
Words: VARDHAN KONDVIKAR
Photographs: SUPRIYA KANTAK
“You expect me to talk?”
“No, Mr Bond,” said the Col, “I expect you to die!”
The Col du Grand St Bernard, to photographer Supriya and I, is just The Col. Fairytale Switzerland ends here. This is where you put on your cool sunglasses and grip the steering wheel very tightly. If possible, you put a struggling informant in the car’s boot and try to escape the graphite-grey Lamborghini that’s chasing you. Cunningly, we pull over to take photographs, and it SCREAMS past, going straight over the cliff in a humongous fireball. I coolly brush an invisible speck of lint off my thousand-dollar suit, adjust my tie, and take off towards Italy. Dun-da-da-dun-dun…
Well, it could have happened. It really is that sort of place. And there was a Lamborghini, it did scream past, and The Col does try to kill you.
Welcome to a very different Switzerland, where cuckoo clocks fear to tread.
Switzerland isn’t all fearsome mountain passes like The Col, of course. There are still the picture-postcard bits, the Bollywood bits, there’s still fondue and milk chocolate and trains weaving in between black-and-white cows. And there are also bits you haven’t heard of, and exploring those shows you just what a schizophrenic place this little country is. On the one hand, you have the Alps, which are straight out of a movie. We’ll get to those (your heart-rate has to build up first). And, then, there’s the western, French-speaking side of Switzerland, which didn’t get the memo on cowbells and dollhouse-style construction, but even so, is a region so sweet I’m not even sure I want to tell you about it, just in case you hurt its feelings or something.
The reason I’m exploring this part of Switzerland is because I’m on the Grand Tour route, a map of the most pleasant, fun-to-drive roads in the country. It skips highways as much as possible, and takes you instead through little villages and sleepy valleys and up gorgeous mountain ranges. This isn’t meant to be a quick bus tour, where you zoom from one sightseeing highlight to another, pausing only for selfies and Indian food. No, this is the trip where you hire a car, drive with the windows down, and really explore. You’ll get lost every five minutes, but, when every detour reveals a perfect little view, or a café that serves artisanal ice cream, or just an empty road on which to pretend to be a rally driver, you won’t be complaining. I can guarantee that.
THE ENID BLYTON HALF
I’m standing atop a Roman amphitheatre, looking at cars passing by – it’s bizarre and wonderful. We’ve headed west out of Zürich towards Basel, and stumbled across the Roman ruins of Augusta Raurica, which has an amphitheatre, a bakery, and even a museum that’s housed in a replica of a Roman villa.
Basel is inexplicably less famous than Switzerland’s other cities. Basel is also, per my excited art director, one of the world’s great design centres, and you’ll see the city’s visual skills in the Tinguely Fountain. Little metal machines spout water and interact with each other, alive in a parallel universe, oblivious to the humans staring at them. The sense of being in a parallel universe intensifies when you settle down for lunch at the Restaurant zum Braunen Mutz.
This bierkeller is a century old, and, as you walk past the stained-glass decorations, you realise the customers have been there since Day One. The menu has been updated, but stick to the classics: veal sausage with potato roesti and onion sauce, a lager, and people-watching. Then, waddle out and explore nutty Basel.
This isn’t a serious European city – look for a majestic town hall, and you’ll find the Rathaus, a jaunty red building, decorated inside with frenzied art on the subject of dogs, fish catching worms, people making faces, even what looks like a dwarf warrior. It’s immensely likeable, and, once you get over the quirks, you realise that this crimson courtyard, with its murals and gold-painted statue, is beautiful.
And perhaps it’s this penchant for quirky decoration, but Basel is known for street art, like the mural of musicians opposite L’Unique, a rock music-themed eatery stuffed with memorabilia and an eccentricity that tells you there’s more to Switzerland than neatness and punctuality.
Basel’s great to hang around in for a night, especially if you’re young, but we must proceed to the gateway to the French-speaking region, Saint-Ursanne. This medieval village, tucked away in a valley in the Jura Hills, was too far out of the way to be attacked much, and the most severe damage has come from a delivery truck squeezing through a stone archway.
The village is named after St Ursicinus, an Irish abbot who set up shop in the hills above, and possibly had an encounter with a bear, which is why he’s often depicted with one. Also – this is true – he’s the patron saint “against stiff necks”, which is very useful here, because you’ll be twisting your head this way and that, unable to decide whether to look at the ‘collegiate’ church with its avenue of trees, or the burgher houses, or the garden that grows herbs that were popular in the Middle Ages. The River Doubs, working its trout-filled way through the limestone hills, is relaxing to amble beside, and there’s plenty of hiking around here. In summer, there’s also a ‘medieval fair’, and I’d bet that dinner and wine, consumed al fresco at a table set on these cobbled paths, would not be the most unromantic thing you could do.
I would recommend you don’t tire yourself out too much, because you have to get up at dawn and drive to Saignelegier. Dawn is critical – the drive is breathtaking in low light, all golden shafts and pools of sunlight over pillowy green hills, and because the damn horses will still be asleep and not try to eat your car. I’m serious: you may well find yourself gawping at a car bonnet covered in grass, mud and scratches when you return from your walk, and then have a strange conversation when you get to the car-rental office. And they call this a law-abiding country.
Apart from the horses, who are agreeable when they aren’t eating your car, you’re here for the Etang de la Gruere, a truly beautiful wetland lake ringed with a boardwalk. In this protected nature reserve, you must stick to the boardwalk, lest you find yourself knee-deep in squishy peat (destroying it in the process). In the early morning, with no one else around, it’s a place you won’t want to leave. It’s pristine, the haunting silence broken only by the occasional cry of a bird and your photographer swearing at ducks to stay still. The ducks and moorhens aren’t cooperating, though: they’re used to being fed by visitors, and zoom towards you with great urgency, pausing frequently to fight each other off.
You could sit here all day.