‘Please don’t make a noise,” says an agitated commuter after we raucously board the train to Zurich. She points to a sign depicting an index finger pressed to lips, and the words Quiet Zone. Not even cellphones and MP3 players with earphones are permitted. We surrender to silence for two hours after leaving the Swiss town of Visp.
Disciplined, responsible behaviour and polished etiquette are held in high regard in Switzerland. The Swiss are obsessed with time-keeping. They are neutral during war, and in matters of public importance they vote by referendum. The country prides itself on the rail network that connects the 26 cantons. The best way to travel, I spend many hours in train carriages during a six-night trip in the twilight of the Swiss winter.
The journey is split into three parts: the tranquil Lake Geneva region (and home to a special vintage wine-making tradition in Lavaux, where the sloped vineyards have been declared a Unesco heritage site); the car-free ski village of Zermatt (and home of the imposing shark-toothed Matterhorn and 37 other 4 000m peaks); and the bustling hub of Zurich, home to the second highest standard of living in the world.
In Switzerland, watches (big ones) decorate most wrists, and clocks tick on most walls. You will find: specialist chocolate, Swiss army knife and cheese shops in the modern streets and narrow cobbled roadways; extreme budget-averse price tags; and snow falling on the Alps and lesser known Jura mountain range.
It is mildly surprising to discover the jocular rivalry between French, German and Italian regions, and that the Swiss have shed nudity issues, whether in the unisex saunas or the front page of the Blick tabloid.
I am surprised to discover that even in Switzerland, a train can be delayed, the “y” and “z” are the wrong way around on keyboards, some Swiss do lose track of time, and if you want to send an e-mail, you get @ by hitting AltGr 2.
I am shocked to find cheval steak – horse meat imported from Canada – sharing the menu with traditional dishes such as cheese fondues, Rosti potato pancakes and Le papet vaudois (sausage, leek and potatoes).
My biggest shock comes when I put the world-renowned Swiss emergency ski rescue to the test after losing control plunging down a blue, allegedly easy, run at Zermatt, below the Matterhorn.
We use the centuries-old town of Vevey overlooking Lake Geneva as first base. We tour the nearby business city of Lausanne. We eat perch and pomme frites (fish and chips) on the shore. We taste white wine from local Chasselas grapes.
Rain falls as we hit the stone-walled wine slopes at St Saphorin in the Lavaux region, where vines clasp the steep terraces. We seek shelter in the Vinorama, which offers tasting for about 230 local varietals. The charming director, Sandra Joye, shows passion for her work. She pours wine and samples it with us. We leave more than three hours later, pushing her to reveal her favourite wine. “I am Swiss, I don’t have an opinion,” she says mischievously.
Tour guide Nadia Ismail explains that Joye’s appreciation for wine expresses the French-Swiss culture. “Unlike the German-Swiss, the French-Swiss often drink wine with every meal,” she says while showing us the Vevey promenade.
Looking over Lake Geneva, which the French-Swiss stubbornly refer to as Lac Leman, Ismail explains that they are not French but are different from German-Swiss. She says the French-Swiss are seen as the Greeks of Switzerland. “The cliché is that German-Swiss see us as having no rules, and we see them as rigid. But at the end of the day, we are all Swiss.”
A statue of Charlie Chaplin is a landmark on the promenade. Exiled from the US during the McCarthy era, his grave lies nearby at Corsier-sur-Vevey.
“Switzerland is a place of refugees,” says Ismail, adding that Boer leader Paul Kruger died in nearby Clarens.
Snow falls when we arrive at our second base, Zermatt, after a two-hour train journey. Thermal gear and padded jackets insulate us from the freeze.
We ride the cable car to the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise, walking through tunnels surrounded by ice sculptures in the chiselled palace.
I stop at the snack-dispensing machine, where you can buy sweets, cold drinks and chips. I zero in on two odd-looking packets. At an altitude of 4 000m in –12ºC, you can buy condoms and “Maybe Baby” pregnancy kits.
The next day, in a remote wonderland of mountains and snow, we hear reggae music. We have stumbled on the Iglu-Dorf Hotel and ice bar, which sleeps more than 40 guests. The beds are made of packed ice, and the sleeping bags cope with temperatures of –40ºC. They rebuild it every year from scratch, with a different theme. Ice carvings of cowboys and Native Americans dominate the corridors – this year’s Wild West theme. Outside, guests relax (naked or in bathing suits) in a heated Jacuzzi sipping Prosecco.
Laid-back Rito Gilli, the hotel manager, serves up a deliciously rich cheese fondue with rye bread minutes before we must leave to catch the last train off the mountain. Unprepared to sleep in the freezing igloo, we race downhill through thick snow in the icy dark.
In Zermatt, our journey shifts up a gear. We hit the slopes for three adrenalin rushes – snow shoeing, sledding and skiing – at Rotenboden. We drip with sweat after trudging uphill in snow shoes, an activity which looks deceptively easy but proves tricky in the thick snow, arms and legs flailing and poles flying. To sled down the slope, simply stay on track.
Our ski day dawns the next morning. We only have until 2.30pm, when we are due to catch a train to Zurich. Gearing up at the ski hire shop takes an hour. Tip: borrow ski gear to cut hefty costs. We catch the electric train and disembark at Rotenboden. There is no sign of a kindergarten slope for beginners like us to warm up. That is one station down.
We start off on the slope. I hang on, precariously snow-ploughing down the piste. About 200m before the base, I negotiate a sharp corner and lose control. My skis collide. My pole hits the snow. My right leg contorts, twists and turns. My knee is mangled. The rescue operation (which depends on compulsory tourist insurance) kicks in. Within 10 minutes they tow me off the piste in a rescue sled, hoist me on a train and transfer me to one of five busy doctors in Zermatt. I get two X-rays, a brief examination, a knee brace, a script for pain killers and space age crutches with reflectors for night walking and retractable snow spikes. I have mangled three knee ligaments. I get the R10 000 bill. Double ouch.
The final leg of the tour, so to speak, grinds at a crippling pace. The train to Zurich is delayed. The Visp to Zurich stretch is silent. I am in Zurich on crutches.
On my last day, the sun shines weakly. I try to explore the city but manage only a tiny patch in front of the Central Plaza Hotel. I hobble to the corner pavement cafe. I sit awkwardly on a tram through the Bahnhofstrasse shopping mecca. The tram trundles past the lake, and the cobbled Old Town. At the Coop supermarket, I stop. A friend holds my shopping basket as I select chocolate for gifts. It is time to go home.