Snow-clad peaks, babbling brooks and spectacular views. Astrud Holmes sings praises of Switzerland, a place that never ceases to amaze.
It's been decades since 'The Sound of Music' first opened to packed cinema halls worldwide. Decades since Julie Andrews sang 'The hills are alive..." Switzerland still invokes the same kind of magic though. The hills still sing. And they make you want to sing along, too.
Probably one of the most diverse countries in Europe, Switzerland boasts a unique blend of ethnic influences - a large number of cultures, sights and sounds all in one corner of the globe. There's French in the Southwest, for example, Italian in the Southeast, German in the North and East, bringing culinary, linguistic and architectural variety to the country.
Then there is that glorious countryside. The scenic tapestry here incorporates pastures and vineyards, mountains and glaciers, forests and lakes, all best seen with the help of the country's efficient rail network. For the tourist, the options are many. You could spend your time walking in fresh green fields under a summer sun, eating Swiss cheese and chocolate, or sleigh-riding at one of many elegant winter resorts.
I managed to squeeze in a little bit of everything. Flying straight from Dubai into Zurich, I took a relaxing three-hour train ride to Geneva. Magnificently situated on the banks of the largest lake in central Europe, at the foot of the Jura mountains and at the gates of the Alps, Geneva is charming. And that's an understatement. The town, with its rich past that still comes alive today, is a true international capital.
Fabulous cuisine, beautiful countryside and close proximity to the Alpine region all contribute towards making it an excellent location to base yourself. All other places of interest are, after all, a mere hour or two away by train, boat or coach.
During my stay, I opted for a taste of history and culture, taking my pick of some thirty museums, architectural buildings, galleries, and the grand hall with its opera, drama and musical concerts held throughout the year. There are a number of outdoor activities to participate in too, during the summer, such as sailing, rowing and water skiing. The Mouettes boats offer a quick means of crossing from one bank to the other, while the larger boats offer cruises. As for shopping, Geneva has numerous facilities in a perimeter concentrated in the Rue Basses, around the chic Rue du Rhone and du Marche, with antique shops, art galleries and bistros. A must see is the colourful flea market held at the Plaine de Plainpalais.
Geneva has a lot for families too. Its agenda of festivals and cultural events alternates theatre, dance, music and even open-air cinema at the lakeside and parks. The annual Bol d'Or sailing regatta held in June brings together more than 600 boats and their crew. However, if you can't make it until August, you can always catch the spectacular 'Fetes de Geneva', which attracts thousands of spectators from all over the world.
My next stop was Zermatt, via the Rhone Express. Then came a scenic four-hour journey by a leisurely 1st class historic but refurbished lake steamer with a delicious meal served on board to Montreux on Lake Geneva. Upon arriving at Montreux, I continued by modern Intercity train through the vineyards of the Valais to Visp. From here, the BVZ Zermatt Railway took me to the international resort at the foot of the Matterhorn.
Zermatt is Switzerland's southernmost summer and winter resort. The climate at this awe-inspiring mountain wonderland, 1620 metres above sea level, is heavenly. What I did here was everything from skiing and paragliding, to tennis, walking and cycling along the 400-kilometre maintained trails inhaling the invigorating Alpine air. This picturesque mountain village is host to many restaurants, cafes, boutique style shops and is, more interestingly, free of car traffic. Horse-drawn sleighs and carriages, as well as electric vehicles, are the only means of transport.
One last tip: Take a trip on the Glacier Express to Davos and St Moritz, an adventurous 71-hour ride that takes you across 291 bridges, 91 tunnels and to the 6,708 foot-high Oberalp Pass which connects the two world-class resorts of Zermatt and St Mortiz. Ride in the comfort of a modern panorama car and see Switzerland up close and personal: its dense forests, snow-capped peaks, rushing mountain streams and centuries-old villages.
After the intense heat of Dubai, what I took home with me was the fresh air by the lake, lush green fields, and the experience of skiing high in the Alps. The hills really were alive. Honest.
For further details, contact Astrud Holm, Thomas Cook Al Rostamani Travels. Tel: 04 3490408.