Ice, Ice, Baby!

If you thought Switzerland is for summer breaks only, think again. Winter is all the more magical, writes SHAFQUAT ALI

THERE’S every chance that you have been there, done that.

So, what can I tell you about one of the favourite holiday destinations for Middle East travellers that you do not know already? Well, for starters, if you haven’t been to Switzerland during winter – and there’s every possibility that you would have only turned to the Swiss Alps when the mercury shot up in summer – you ain’t seen no nothing.
Well, to be perfectly honest, it’s not something I would have ever ventured out to on my own – and certainly not when it was snowing in our very own backyward: yes, Ras Al Khaimah got snow even before Montreux experienced its first hailstorm!
But then, it’s not easy to refuse a freebie to Switzerland. Even in winter.
And so, off I went. And what I got was a veritable winter wonderland.
Indeed, as the Swiss say – and we often dismiss – you haven’t seen the best of Switzerland if you haven’t landed there in winter. For starters, the temperature is uniformly cool or cold. Yes, the sun peeps out once in a while but only just – most times, it’s gone even before you can take out your thermal gloves!
But who’s complaining? We, from the Middle East at least, are not particularly keen on playing hide-and-seek games with the sun. For one, we’ve all burnt our fingers – sorry, skin – sometime or the other with that ball of fire beating down on our head for the better part of the year. So, for a change, we would prefer to have it behind the clouds. Still, for some, the best part is that once summer is over – it lasts roughly from June to September – you will not only find the place to be much quieter but also a whole load cheaper.
February, in particular, is a great time to be in Switzerland. To be more precise, it’s carnival time, or Fasnacht, in many towns with elaborate parades beginning at the break of dawn or even before that.
What’s more, for winter sports enthusiasts, resorts in the Alps which typically begin operating in late-November are now in full swing. So, my advice is: get there before the snow begins to melt in April!
Ice. Ice. Ice. That’s what Switzerland in winter is all about. Nice, nice, nice! … I sang all the way through as we were whisked straight from the Zurich airport on a fast train to Interlaken. Located in the middle of two lakes – Lake Thun and Lake Brienz – it offered some of the most picturesque views in recent memory. Every bend that the train took was a photo op – a picture postcard in the making. For those who want to be one with nature, there are cruises at hand. On Lake Thun, the Beatushölen prehistoric caves have stalactites, waterfalls, an ancient cell of the St. Beatus monk and some great castles from the 12th and 13th century including Schloss Oberhofen, which was once held by the Habsburgs, and Schloss Hunegg. And while at it, one must not forget to add that Lake Brienz is also the cleanest lake in Europe!
Next, you can take the train to Lauterbrunnen and head to the tip of the majestic Jungfraujouch, the highest train station of Europe. Once onboard, you will realise why the Jungfrau Railway is the most famous mountain railway in the world. Opened in 1912, this cog wheel railway offers some of the most breathtaking views of snowladen Switzerland till you reach Piz Gloria. Made famous by James Bond, this restaurant is perched on top of a mountain and offers a breathtaking 360 degree panorama view of snow-capped mountains.
After lunch, you can head straight down to the ski resorts of the Jungfrau region, which lie directly below the world-famous backdrop of the Eiger, the Mönch and the Jungfrau. The alpine landscape is as varied as the choice of pistes and runs.
On the trainride back, you can check out Grindelwald. Smaller than Interlaken and not quite so crowded, the town is a great place to hike up to the Upper Glacier or the Glacier Gorge. And when you do get to the top, huffing and puffing, you will be well and truly rewarded – what with Eiger, Jungfrau and Mönch, in all their glory, staring you in the face!
After a feast of snow, if you want a bit of a change I suggest you take the Golden Pass Panoramic Train and head to Montreux, which philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau once claimed was “the finest place of earth”.
Indeed, the Swiss Riviera has much to please the eyes and warm the hearts. Montreux is famous for its historic architecture and greets visitors with a breathtaking view of Lake Geneva set against the backdrop of the mountains beyond.
Chillon Castle, which receives more visitors than any other historical building in Switzerland, is undoubtedly the must-see attraction here. A  beautiful boatride on Lake Geneva transports you to this stunning fortress, which caught the imagination of the world when Lord Byron wrote about the fate of Bonivard, a follower of the Reformation who was chained to the fifth pillar in the dungeons for four years in the 16th century.
Remarkably, the castle is still in good shape. An afternoon viewing of the tower, courtyards and dungeons at the castle is sure to transport one back in time.
For those who wish to step back to modern-day civilisation, Geneva, Switzerland’s second-largest city, is less than an hour’s drive away and so is Lousanne, better known as the sports city. While Geneva, a truly international city, is packed with museums and has many cultural events year round, Lousanne boasts a number of sports-related attractions including the Olympic museum, which was established in 1993.
But whatever it is that you do – or wherever you decided to head to – one thing is for sure: even on the coldest of days, you are sure to be enveloped by heartwarming hospitality that Switzerland is so famous for!