Looking for the perfect Swiss experience – gondolas, cow bells, chocolate and all? Alexia Santamaria recommends a certain hillside not far from Lucerne.
When you think about Switzerland, certain icons come to mind: mountains, cow bells, chocolate, cheese, cobblestoned villages, chalets. On a recent trip to the Lucerne region I managed to accidentally see them all, on a day trip to Mt Titlis in the Uri Alps. It was 12 hours of pure, unadulterated Swissness.
We got on a train from lovely Lucerne at precisely 8.10am. I mention the time because Swiss efficiency is not a myth: they make a big announcement if a train is running even two minutes late. We arrived exactly 49 minutes later, as promised, and were met by our guide to take the cable car up the mountain. We 'glided' - even the cable cars are smooth and efficient here – up to Stand station and then boarded the Titlis Rotair, the world's first revolving cable car, to the summit station at 3020 metres.
The cable car rotated slowly and gently and we got a 360 degree view without having to move a muscle. We passed dramatic sheer cliff faces, snow-capped peaks, translucent blue-tinged glaciers, and as we got higher had a clear view down to the picture perfect hills and mirror-like lakes below.
At the top we took the Ice Flyer chairlift to the glacier park. It was fascinating viewing the deep frozen crevasses from directly above. When we disembarked at the edge of the glacier we watched as people below careen down the snowy hill on toboggans and inner tubes – a slightly surreal sight as we had been sweating in Lucerne's 27 degree heat an hour ago.
There were some marvellous viewpoints for looking back down the mountain at the breathtaking alpine landscape around and below. Definitely the kind of sights to make you contemplate your size and place in the universe. Looking up, we saw the sun glistening on the glacier – equally spectacular.
We had to check out all the tourist hot spots at the top and gingerly padded through the glacier cave, being careful not to end up on our backsides. We walked through the 150-metre-long turquoise-hued ice tunnel 20 metres below the surface of the glacier, passing ice sculptures dotted along the way. Next we braved the suspension bridge (Europe's highest, apparently). At 500 metres above ground and 3041 metres above sea level, it's definitely not for the faint hearted. The vistas and feeling of being suspended mid-air in a winter wonderland setting were worth any giddiness.
While being at the summit was definitely a highlight, perhaps the best part of the day was the descent. We took the cable car to Trübsee station and had a leisurely stroll around the lake of the same name. Away from the tourist attractions, crowds, restaurants and souvenir shops this was Swiss beauty at its finest. The meandering walk around an iridescent blue lake with towering mountain ranges in the background left me speechless. It was one of those experiences where you take hundreds of photos because it seems to get more beautiful every step, and you don't want to miss the memory of even one jaw-dropping moment.
We loved seeing Swiss families swimming in the lake and tossing their hearty sausages into metal baskets that hung above campfires – barbecuing looks a bit different here and the drama of the open fire in this natural setting is wonderful. Once we had circumnavigated the lake we walked further down to catch yet another cable car. Again, these were some of the most serene, beautiful moments of my life. Around us, on lush green hills peppered with chalets, pretty cows created a loud collective wind chime effect with their orchestra of cow bells.
We took another smaller cable car to Untertrübsee and stopped by a tiny rustic cheese factory. We were lucky enough to get a glimpse at the traditional process and peek our heads into the cold room filled with round yellow wheels of deliciousness. The smell was intoxicating and the cheese exquisite.
We weren't quite sure what to envisage when our guide said it was time to 'scooter' down but were soon introduced to scooter bikes, built like a giant child's scooter with plump bike-like tyres. Slightly apprehensive (but aware there was no other way down) we donned helmets and began the 3.5 kilometre descent. While there was initially a lot of girly squealing I can say with certainty getting down to the base of Mount Titlis was the most fun I've had in years.
Thanks to that famous Swiss precision, we were able to drop off our scooters and walk straight to Engelberg station to be back in Lucerne in time for drinks by the river, some serious chocolate shopping at Laderach (yes there really are chocolate shops everywhere in Switzerland) and some Rosti for dinner at the Witshaus Taube restaurant by the water. Lucerne is a magical medieval town, perfect for losing yourself in the cobblestoned streets, churches, frescoed buildings and fascinating bridges with their hidden paintings. All Swiss boxes ticked in a day (OK, granted, we didn't buy a watch or hang out in a bank) and an incredible taster of one of the most stunning countries on earth.
Alexia Santamaria was a guest of Switzerland Tourism.