I fell in love with Switzerland ten minutes after we crossed the border. We’d driven up from Annecy through the Alps, ignoring our sat nav’s incessant pleading to take the junction for Geneva and done a detour to have a look at Chamonix and Mont Blanc. Well try to have a look at them anyway, Mont Blanc was shrouded in cloud, and we had no idea in what direction we should be peering.
Only driving out of Chamonix heading north could we turn back and feel the might of something looming just beyond view and catch a glimpse of the glacier descending from on high.
The border itself was uneventful, I’d never driven across a proper country border before (The UK borders don’t count) so I think I was expecting a little more. There was a hut in the middle of the road, a sign, and not a soul around. As it turned out, that was our most marked border crossing of the entire trip but that’s a story for another day.
Through the border village and up at the top of the next ridge we stopped to let the girls stretch their legs. It was sunny, which in itself felt pretty amazing after four very wet nights in Annecy, the air was fresh and clean as it only is when you’re miles away from any major roads, the little village was chocolate box pretty, and as we stepped out of the car we heard bells. Cow bells, around the necks of the herd in a pasture just over the road and a little way up the mountain. It was all my dreams of Switzerland come true in one tiny car park; love at first moo.
We drove on down a road that climbed and twisted high, then gently curled back down again, taking us further and further into the Bernese Alps and it was here that the ‘snow or no snow’ debate got serious. The hills above Annecy topped wooded slopes with brilliant white rock that sparkled and gleamed in the sunshine in a very snowy sort of a way, but these were real mountains, that made Annecy mere hills, and we found ourselves craning our necks trying to work out whether that white blob high above our heads was rock or powder. In hindsight the answer was probably always rock, but there were a couple that we convinced ourselves could be snowy peaks.
We reached the peak of the road, turned a corner, and there laid out before us like a child’s toy mat was the Rhone valley. Fortunately the powers that be had decided that a car park at the very top might just be a good idea, presumably to stop everyone wanting to stop on the side of the road and just stare for a bit, and we duly pulled over.
For H it was as if his school geography textbooks had come to life, behind us lay steeply sided pointy gorges made by the rivers that hurtled along at the bottom of them and here in front of us lay not one but two big rounded glacial valleys, wide and flat across the bottom and then swooping up to the sky. And while my knowledge of the different types of valleys has now improved, mostly I just drank it all in; and then went back to the car for the camera.
Zigzagging our way down the hill felt like we were coming into Martigny-ville by plane; with every turn the little tinker toys became larger and more real and what had seemed to be teeny tiny cottages from the top of the mountain were revealed to be five storey apartment buildings. And as the buildings got bigger, so did the surrounding landscape, revealing what I’d thought to be a ploughed field to be vineyards.
Vineyards absolutely everywhere. Apart from the bits that were apple orchards. Every outcrop that would hold soil was planted up, often leaving us scratching our heads as to just how they got the vines up there in the first place, and how on earth anyone returned to harvest them without falling off the sheer, and often unfenced drop behind.
I had no idea Switzerland even produced wine, let alone on such a scale.
Our campsite was located about half way down the valley towards Sion, a beautiful and largely empty site hidden behind an industrial unit. I think the industry must have been wine related, there were some odd shunting sort of noises from the little trains occasionally but other than that it was easy to forget that you were anywhere other than a big orchard in the heart of the mountains. Everywhere you looked the was a peak soaring into the clouds, including right behind us. On the first night we were walking back from the shower block and noticed a light up in the sky ahead of us. Expecting it to be a plane we watched to see where it would go, and only when it didn’t move did we realised it was the lights of a house, high up on the hillside above us.
With all that space to play with, and the first site where we were really happy to let Pip crawl and explore we spent quite a bit of time just enjoying our views and one memorable morning at the resort pool, deep and blue and cool, it was bliss to swim in and accessorised by the most insane water slide that I think I have ever seen.
Imagine a giant King Kong, about the right proportion as the one in the films, with two steep straight slides at right angles coming from his neck. You flew down the slide, shot out over the water and landed with a splash six feet from the end. Crazy and wonderful.
Our big expedition was to Zermatt and that deserves a post all of its own, by which we mean that I have far too many photos and if I put them all in one post it will probably crash the Internet, and the rest of the time we just enjoyed being in Switzerland.
Odd as it sounds, Switzerland felt far more familiar, far more like home than France ever did. Travelling should broaden your horizons and make you experience new and different things but by this point we were approaching being two weeks into the trip, and a little familiarity was a very welcome thing, even if it was only that the supermarket was laid out like home, with the fruit and veggies first rather than the bakery.
But it was more than that, I think it was the people. The Swiss people that we met were, without exception, friendly and welcoming, especially to the girls and Pip, and I got the sense that there is very much a culture of acceptance, be it of foreigners, or just diversity within their own population. We never felt that we were foreigners, some unknown and inexplicable entity, we were visitors. The scenery is simply breathtakingly beautiful but the reason I know we will be back, despite the extortionate prices for tomatoes, is the kindness we experienced there.
As we packed up on our final morning and chatted to Jean-Nicholas (the campsite owner) he was telling us how beautiful it all looks in the snow, how the royal family ski on the hill just behind us, how we’d absolutely love all the winter sport. And I looked around at our tent, little plastic poles and thin tent, and then at the permanent caravans dotted around wearing corrugated sheets as extra roofs, or the shower block, sturdy with big overhanging eaves. We will definitely be back, and I would absolutely love to see a Swiss winter, but maybe not in the tent!
And what postcard would be complete without a little film, so I’ll leave you with what may or may not have been Mont Blanc and a little snippet of our time in Switzerland.
The music in an irresistible in joke – our camp site, located the furthest I have ever slept away from the coast in my entire life, was billed as a “Campsite and Beach Resort”!