A few weeks before Swiss Air flew me to Zurich, I read that Switzerland had been anointed the “fourth happiest country in the world” by the World Happiness Report. That, and two clever and humorous Switzerland Tourism videos featuring Swiss-born tennis legend Roger Federer, contributed to my decision to spend 10 days there this past May.
The fact that the Swiss are, per capita, the largest consumers of chocolate in the world, at just under 20 pounds per year, certainly helps to generate a lot of happiness — dark chocolate releases the same chemical as does the brain in inducing feelings of love.
Well, I ate a great deal of Swiss chocolate — in no particular order of preference, Lindt, Maison Cailler, Sprungli, Laderach and Oro — and fell in love with Switzerland.
With my first-class Swiss Travel Pass embedded in my cell phone, I embarked on the Grand Train Tour that ferried me to four distinctly different cantons of the 26 that make up the member states of the Swiss Confederation.
Switzerland is an amalgam of four official languages and cultures: French, German, Italian and Romansh. Despite benign rivalry among them, the country works harmoniously. The people are united by the indisputable beauty of the country’s geography as well as the high standard of living and the quality of their famous products.
I arrived in Zurich at the crack of dawn, checked into the modern, vibrant Ameron Hotel overlooking Lake Zurich and walked out to my balcony for my first, truly stunning view of the lake with the Alps in high relief in the distance. Even at that hour swimmers and boaters braced the cool lake, while walkers and bikers paraded along the promenade.
Ameron is centrally located; a short walk from the hotel and you’re at the Opera House and Circus. Then you can go up a winding street to the Kunsthaus Zurich, where about 1,000 artworks, of their 40,000, are on permanent display. One gallery is filled with Alberto Giacometti’s black, elongated sculptures.
Zurich existed as a small settlement before the Romans came in the 3rd century B.C. Their invaders called it Turicum. Three riverboats named Regula, Felix and Turicum ply the waters daily, a reminder of its ancient history. Great stone houses, whose foundations were built in the 13th century, and winding cobbled streets characterize the old part of the city. Strolling along, I couldn’t resist browsing in many of the unique artisanal shops. OK, I also purchased a few things: irresistible chocolates and dried fruits at the venerable Schwarzenbach shop and a petite smoked salmon sandwich at Confisierie Honold, established in 1905. For a panoramic view of the Lake and the Alps, the vast terrace of Lindenhoff is a perfect perch on which to picnic.
On the opposite side of the lake, in Zurich West, a trendy area has taken over older industrial buildings, creating an atmosphere of relaxed bohemianism where local galleries and designers have brought renewed life to the area.
That afternoon, I was off to Lindt Home of Chocolate, a 30-minute boat ride to Kilchberg. Even if you don’t like chocolate, the building itself is an architectural marvel, designed by the Basel-based architects Christ & Gantenbein, a confection of gleaming white concrete with a swirling, conch-shell shaped staircase and massive circular windows. Rising almost 30 feet into the middle of this airy and light-filled space is a chocolate fountain. Honest-to-goodness chocolate streams down from a huge golden whisk. I could have happily bathed in it.
On the upper level, an imaginative interactive multimedia exhibition housed the history of chocolate and showcased Swiss Chocolate Pioneers. Enormous multicolored treat dispensaries filled our eager hands with a vast variety of Lindt treats. Another layer of sweetness was added when I, and a small group, created our own chocolate under the strict ministrations of the Master Chocolatier in the Chocolateria. Two lollypops and one custom dark chocolate bar were my proud issue.
The ground floor offers the Lindt Cafe and the largest Lindt chocolate shop in the world. To say the least, my load was heavier on the ferry ride back to Zurich. Who could resist yet more chocolate to take home?
Next stop on my Grand Train journey was Lucerne, or Luzern. Although only 41 minutes away, it seemed as if I had entered a completely different world. The city slopes from the high forests down to Lucerne Lake. With the snow-capped Alps in the distance, the city’s emblematic Mount Pilatus stands sentinel as if it left its Alpine buddies just to make a more accessible hiking experience for the citizens and tourists. I marveled at the outstanding architecture both old and new, from the 19th-century entrance of the Railway Station to the turn-of-the-17th century Rathaus, Town Hall. The city felt like a living museum.
Straddling the Ruess river is Chapel Bridge, the oldest covered bridge in Europe, dated 1333. The distinctive water tower, also built around 1300, was once a prison and torture chamber. Speaking of torture, the History Museum houses the very same guillotine whose menacing blade beheaded the last criminal in Switzerland to die in this manner in 1940.
On a lighter note, I was thrilled to have a private tour of the modern KKL Luzern, a culture and conference center whose massive cantilevered roof extends toward the lake. The world-renowned Concert Hall is a work of art created by celebrated French architect Jean Nouvel and equally revered American acoustician Russell Johnson. Besides being beautiful to behold, the intricate system of opening and closing a series of motorized concrete doors on each side of the shoe-box-shaped hall creates optimal acoustic reverberations for both large ensembles and more intimate performances. The superb Kunstmuseum, in the same complex, showcased contemporary European artists, each creating a visual representation of his or her personal universe.
A lake boat whisked me away from the busy but fulfilling day in Lucerne to a sanctuary of incomparable serenity and beauty at the five-star Park Hotel Vitznau, situated between the lake and the Rigi Mountains. Its storied history, dating to the 19th century, includes a roll call of the rich, famous and throned, from Queen Victoria to Bela Bartok to Meryl Streep. The masterwork of renovation completed in 2013 draws you into the lobby with an unobstructed view of the crystal clear lake and white clouds lounging over the Henry Moore-shaped mountains in the near distance. The original facade of stonework and turrets are in bold contrast to the light-filled modern interior. Even the shaft of the glass elevator is artfully playful with its murals of lakeside activities.
Three different balconies of my incredible suite beckoned me to rest and dream. Quiet is the sound most respected at Park Hotel Vitznau, other than the echoed tolling of church bells from the nearby village.
After a restorative session in the infinity pool that seemed to stretch across the lake to the very edge of the mountains, I lounged in the adjacent spa area where young swimmers were gliding along in an aquarium stretching the entire length of a wall.
The wine cellar, suitable for Dionysius, filled the crystal glasses of Michelin Star restaurant and the Lakeside Grill, where I had breakfast just after sunrise and dinner as the sun made its dramatic exit.
And so, too early, did I. Leaving this idyllic setting was difficult, but I went straight up a vertiginous funicular climb to Burgenstock, a nearby mountain 3,652 feet above sea level with stunning panoramic views of Lucerne and its surroundings. The mountain village has three hotels, stand-alone restaurants, private residences, a nine-hole golf course and tennis courts, trendy shops and even a medical center — it’s like a modern-day Machu Picchu without the llamas. Audrey Hepburn and Mel Ferrer were married in a chapel here in 1954, and Sofia Loren’s modern home is now the site of the restaurant Sharq. Photos of that era abound in the current star of the mountain top, the five-star Burgenstock Hotel and Alpine Spa.
With only a few hours there, it was suggested I explore the massive, 107,639-square-foot spa (no exaggeration). My second favorite experience there was being immersed in the warm salt water of the darkened serenity room. Even better than that was swimming to the edge of the cantilevered, heated infinity pool that seemed to dangle precipitously over the mountainside with a view of belled cows on green carpets of grass, Lucerne and those marvelous snow-capped Alps.
Although I didn’t stay overnight, the front desk allowed me to peek at one of the suites with the stand-alone bathtub next to the fireplace and adjacent to the floor-to-ceiling windows. Next time, perhaps.
The only time it rained during my trip was during the 2 1/2-hour train ride from Lucerne to Vevey in the canton of Vaud. The dark cloudscape and rain-smudged windows created a romantic picture as the scenery whizzed by.
The sun returned to its full splendor as I arrived at the Grand Hotel du Lac. It is one of those gracious, quietly luxurious hotels with such character and relaxed old world charm that, in every way, creates a welcoming, homey ambiance. Coincidentally, my room was next to 307 where the fictional character Edith Hope vacationed in Anita Brookner’s Booker Award-winning “Hotel du Lac,” the book I was reading at the time. Like Edith’s, my room opened up to two petite balconies facing Lake Geneva and mountain scapes.
The service in the plant-infused dining room or in the adjacent garden was impeccable. Servers proudly presented the most exquisitely plated and innovative culinary choices. Indulge me in but one: elderflower-flavored whisked egg whites with rhubarb poached Valais raspberries and white beer ice cream!
After strolling along the lakeside promenade adjacent to the hotel, I spotted a statue of Charlie Chaplin near the food museum, Musee de l’alimentation. Chaplin, an honored resident of Vevey, lived on an estate now maintained as the Charlie Chaplin Museum. Dazzling in its embrace of his genius, the museum includes rooms that pay homage to various aspects of his life, from his family of eight with wife Oona O’Neill Chaplin, to Madame Tussauds-like wax figures, to viewings of his immortal films such as the heartbreaking “The Kid.” At the museum store next door, all things Chaplin were on sale including replicas of his iconic bowler hat and cane. I purchased a CD set of the film music he composed himself.
Not far from Vevey is Tolochenaz, the village where Hepburn created her peaceful home, La Paisible, and where, in 1963, at age 63, she died. With her dear friend Pierluigi Orunescu, I visited her modest gravesite in a tiny cemetery surrounded by fields filled with flowers. She adored her village and the village loved her, as was evident by the homage paid to her in a square dedicated to this incomparable woman — a bust of the actress takes center stage and a street is named in her honor. Because Pierluigi grew up in La Paisible and refers to Hepburn as his “second mom,” the villagers came out to greet him and to reminisce about their beloved Audrey. A short walk away from the square is her estate, which is privately owned. I did sneak a look in through the greenery, though.
The next morning, off to Montreux, home to the summer Jazz Festival and site of Queen’s beloved music studio. My mission, however, was otherwise; the 1930’s style Belle-Époque Train, also known as the Chocolate Train, awaited to transport its guests on their way to savor the cheese in La Maison du Gruyere and taste the chocolate at Maison Cailler in Broc. Through a charming audio tour, a talking cow narrated the story of cheese production from the grass she grazed on to the finished product. While at Cailler, the story of chocolate was told throughout several rooms, each creating a different lifelike experience as the history of chocolate unfolded. Again, a tasting provided the grand finale.
As if that were not enough, I indulged in a traditional cheese fondue at the Chalet restaurant in the delightful village of Gruyere. The town boasts a medieval castle and two rather unusual museums: the spellbinding Tibet Museum, and Museum HR Giger, home of the macabre art created by the Swiss artist.
Another grand finale awaited in the city of Basel, a gem bracketing the Rhine River and bordering Germany and France. Basel’s population is 175,000, and its museums number 40. They include architect Renzo Piano’s gorgeous art museum and the Foundation Beyeler and Frank Gehry’s Vitra Design Museum, one of the world’s leading museums of industrial design and architecture.
This bountiful modernity harmonizes seamlessly with the architectural diversity of the old town or Altstadt, an engagingly walkable area both quaint and cosmopolitan with its shops and cafes, world-class opera house, and concert hall. Nourishing my aesthetic demands led to satisfying my taste buds. Enter Jakob’s Basler-Leckerly’s historic cookie company, the oldest in Switzerland. Four varieties of ginger cookies based on recipes from three centuries are the pride of Basel and cannot be purchased outside of Switzerland. Pity. So, I purchased far more than I could eat, to take home. Subtle flavors, soft and chewy at the same time. A Proustian memory.
Finally, I came to my last home away from home. What can I say about Grand Hotel Les Trois Rois that hasn’t already been written about in superlatives? It is one of the oldest city hotels in Europe (dating to the 17th century) renovated to perfection and carrying an atmosphere of grace and grandeur. On arrival I was presented with a single rose, a foreshadowing of a most exquisite selection of flowers in my suite — fit for a queen, let alone Three Kings, overlooking the fast flowing and busy Rhine River.
My last two nights in Switzerland presented two different but equally enjoyable dining experiences. The first was at Le Rhin Bleu. A friend and I boarded a Rhine ferry to reach this outdoor Mediterranean restaurant perched high above the river and offering excellent seafood and superb views. The next restaurant was the art-filled Trois Rois Brasserie, with its classic Swiss and French cuisine.
The next morning I flew home to Canada, which ranks as the 10th happiest country, but cherishing the happiest of 10 days in the fourth.