Walk This Way
Walk This Way
A girl's mission to find herself in one of the most beautiful countries on Earth.
By Diane Vadino
I arrived in Switzerland with my passport, a cosmetics bag full of prescription pills, and a mission.
Missions don't work on vacations, which, in my opinion, should be as rigorously lazy and involve as few physical movements as possible. A trip is different, especially when you're traveling by yourself like I was, having left behind a job that no longer fit and six months of doctor's appointments that concluded in a standing appointment with my local pharmacy. I needed a break—to literally walk off the stress that had plagued me since the summer. I had the time and the motivation and an Internet connection; after Googling “autumn” and “best Europe hiking,” I looked at my options (Alsace in France? The Dolomites in Italy?) and headed to Switzerland.
After six months of worrying, I wanted a country where personal safety was taken for granted as much as possible. I wanted law and order; I didn't want to have to worry about being conned by a cabbie or deposited, as I once had been in Hanoi, in a FedEx depot and shaken down for twice the agreed-upon fare to get back to the city. I wanted easy. I wanted chocolate and cheese. I didn't need friendly or welcoming, which was just as well. My time in Switzerland suggested it would let me, as a visitor, in only so far and no further. The country is nearly synonymous with its long-standing neutrality, and is now a white island in the blue sea of the Eurozone. But even as it is viewed by prospective travelers as not as French as France, as German as Germany, or Italian as Italy—an ersatz version of its neighbors, full of their own self regard—and ultimately too expensive for much more than a scattershot tour of Zurich, it’s uniquely indifferent to the rest of the world. Which was exactly what I wanted.
A 400-foot hanging bridge, suspended over an outlet of the Aletsch Glacier, leads across the Massaschlucht gorge.
My plan was to avoid the cities as much as possible, beyond the obvious necessity of entering and leaving the country through them. I spent only 12 hours in Geneva before traveling first to Vevey, on the shore of Lake Geneva, then to Lucerne, and then to my real destination: Greich, a 20-house village in the canton (a Swiss version of a state, more or less) that’s known as Valais to the two-thirds of its population that speaks French and Wallis to the remaining German-speakers. Greich was either a two-hour hike from the train station in the valley below it, or a five-minute ride on an aerial tramway that landed with a thud at an unmanned station 100 feet above the ground; the tram went on to Riederalp, the family-friendly ski resort at the top of the mountain. In Greich, mid-slope, there were no stores, no sidewalks, just a small church, the omnipresent chime of cowbells, mind-bending views of the Pennine Alps to the south, and the cleanest air I'd ever breathed.
I had come to Switzerland to find some measure of quiet—a quality in easy supply in October, when I was there, during what may be the globe’s best off-season: Though it snowed the morning I arrived in Greich, most days were sunny and cloudless and warm. Riederalp’s claim to fame, at least in the non-skiing months, is its proximity to the Aletsch Glacier, a 14-mile ribbon of snow and ice that flows beneath Jungfrau and Eiger, the summits of which were just barely visible if I, in Riederalp looked north; if I turned south, toward the Pennines, I would instead see Matterhorn, nearly 30 miles south. From the low peak of Riederalp I could hike along the ridge above the glacier to Bettmeralp and Fiescheralp. Though this route was warningly posted in red-and-white on the ubiquitous yellow “wanderweg” trail markers, the main path was wide and easy and much easier to navigate than those further down the mountain, which ran along slopes so vertical that in spots it was impossible to fully extend out an arm on the mountainside before hitting earth. On the wide path above, hikers walked in shorts and sunglasses, under china-blue skies instead of forest canopy.
1. The 15th-century town of Epesses, seen above Lake Geneva, is one of the region's wine-making centres.
2. Bettmersee, the lake, sits above the Alpine skiing village of Bettmeralp, visible at the right.
3. One of the swimming areas in the Bergoase Spa at Tschuggen Grand Hotel in Arosa.
4. Kitchener, a men's and women's boutique in Zurich’s Viadukt development, has the city’s best array of international brands, including A.P.C., Bobo Choses, Deux Souliers, and Petit Bateau.
Walking up to 10 miles each morning was one part of my DIY spa mission. The other part was swimming as much as possible. Since Roman times, people have been traveling to the thermal baths at Leukerbad, a 1,000-year-old town, also in Valas. One of the most popular today is at the Lindner Alpentherme, a two-hour trip (two trains and a bus) from Greich, or a crow’s flight of just 19 miles, over the impassable Alps. It’s unlike any spa I have ever visited. One level holds an indoor pool, with thermal water heated to around 100 degrees Fahrenheit; it connects, through a plastic curtain, to an outdoor section, which offers submerged lounge chairs and spouts of bubbles, along with views of the mountains above. The atmosphere in the outdoor pool is more late-night disco than children’s play yard, as it is inside, and many of the couples swimming around me—more than the sum total of all the couples in America making out in pools at that precise moment—cared little about privacy.
Having reached my fill of PDA, I went to the lower level, the real reason I had come: the “sauna village,” with a dozen saunas and cold baths, each built into wooden buildings meant to fill out the titular village. It was not “clothing optional” but “no-clothing mandatory,” a fact I didn’t entirely believe until I got there and immediately viewed a lifetime’s worth of naked Swiss men. Half the crowd looked like the sort of professors who dated their TAs; the other half was younger, and mostly hid behind towels. For sauna lovers, like me, it was heaven, despite all the naked older men, who could easily be avoided with a bit of planning. One hut rotated scents on the hour, and when I entered, it smelled like the inside of a Starbucks, thanks to the coffee scrub everyone was slathering on their arms. I watched a dozen or so people alternate between the Swiss chalet (housing the Finnish sauna), stone mill (with a cooler stone sauna), barn (where the coffee scrub was distributed) and, of course, an actual bar, where naked spa-goers watched soccer on a television while drinking Fantas and beer. My favorite place was a small sundeck, and it was on my way there that I saw the illustrated sign that perfectly summed up my happy dislocation of being in Switzerland: a naked, voluptuous woman with wild hair, a trim waist, legs almost pornographically drawn apart as she sat on a small bench, with an angry red line drawn across her. The next image was the same, except that she was sitting on a small red towel. That was OK. Then I knew where the Swiss drew their line.
Over time, I became less resistant to activities other than swimming alone and hiking alone. I took the Glacier Express to the city of Chur and then up to Arosa, a mountain resort with golden hills, which shone under the late-autumn sun (take away the Alpine lakes and it might have been Marin County). I dedicated a day to getting a better look at Matterhorn, spending an afternoon on a train up to a viewing platform, surrounded by the English—in this case, a posh collection of sixty-somethings made up of wives in tight sweaters and husbands in hunting jackets and neck-scarves. This was fitting, in its way: Switzerland’s tourism industry is largely credited to the English—specifically to Thomas Cook, who led the first guided trip of the country for 62 Britons in 1863. These were their expensively outfitted progeny.
As much as I would have preferred to fly home to New York directly from Greich, that was impossible, and I was forced to travel first to Zurich; that city, in the country’s north, became my unavoidable final stop. It was a poor substitute for the audacious beauty of Valais, but it did have at least one truly wonderful thing: a thermal bath on the roof of my hotel, the B2. There should have been views of the Alps from the baths, but the mountains were obscured; the late summer that had lingered through my time in Greich had been swept away overnight by low, cold clouds. In a way, it was my last lucky break in a trip that had been full of them: Sitting in a pool on a rooftop as I looked out over Zurich and the first snow of the season fell to the ground, I knew that the time had come to leave. The peace of mind that had been so viscerally present in the October air seemed to have dissipated with it, and I felt, for the first time, that perhaps I could take it with me.
1. The lounge at Coco Bar and Grill, steps off Paradeplatz
2. The four-storey Bergoase spa at the Tschuggen Grand Hotel in Arosa.
Tschuggen Grand Hotel in Arosa
The Platonic ideal of customer service—never fawning but hugely attentive—with comfortable rooms offering incredible views looking out onto the Alps. The four-story Bergoase spa complex, with an indoor-outdoor pool, fitness center, and sauna complex, was designed by Ticino-based Mario Botta Architetto and is worth visiting on its own.
This is the HQ for the Swiss brand that’s since spread as far as Hong Kong and St. Barths; treatments are formulated using ingredients collected in the surrounding Alps.
BEST TRAIN TRIP
The Glacier Express, which travels from Zermatt to St. Moritz in about eight hours, gets all the attention for a reason: It’s a once-in-a-lifetime trip that, most impressively, passes above the luminous blue waters of a tributary of the Rhein.
Pleasantly busy, well-marked walking paths trek between Riederalp and Bettmeralp and then on to Fiescheralp, from where you can either take a cable car up to the viewing platform at Eggishorn—with views of Aletsch Glacier, Eiger, and Matterhorn—or paraglide down the mountain.
Coco Grill and Bar
Bleicherweg 1A, Zurich
The Coco Grill and Bar, tucked into a pocket off the busy Paradeplatz, offers a cozy subterranean tasting room. At night, it's restricted to private parties and small corporate functions, so head there at lunch for a daily-changing menu of specials off the grill, unfussily prepared and served by a friendly, low-key staff.