Dreaming of Switzerland

But the real stars are the cows...

Switzerland (photo credit: REVITAL HORESH)
(photo credit: REVITAL HORESH)
‘How about we do a wing over?” asked Thomas, a young blue-eyed man I’d met just 30 minutes ago.
For most of that time, I’d been screaming out in delight mixed with fear while harnessed to him and a glider that was flying dizzyingly high above the ground.
“Sure, why not?” I responded without overthinking my response. Truthfully, although I hadn’t the faintest idea what a wing over was as we drifted over the intoxicating landscapes of the Swiss Alps, I felt ready to do whatever my guide suggested.
That’s how I found myself a few seconds later whispering a quick prayer as we made a sharp 90º turn upward. Then, as we began to slow down, we turned 180º, plunged back down and then straightened out so that we were going back the way we’d just come. As the strong wind hit every part of my body, we soared in the valley between green mountains with snowcapped peaks that reached up 2,500 meters.
We soared over picturesque houses of the upscale resort town Gstaad, which from this height looked like miniature toys from a dollhouse. For many more long moments, we soared between heaven and earth as we took in the sun shining on the snowy moun- tain peaks, the steep cliffs, tall waterfalls and raging rivers that snaked down the mountainside. I was left dumbstruck in the face of all this beauty.
The intoxicating feeling of hovering high up above the ground stayed with me for a long time after we’d landed safely back on earth in a lovely meadow in Gstaad, which is located in the Saanenland region of southwestern Switzerland known as Bernese Oberland.
This beautiful area has attracted celebrities such as Madonna, Paris Hilton, Sting and Roman Polanski, as well as royals from the UK, Spain and Monaco.
The locals, however, will tell you that the real stars in the area are the cows, which outnumber people and which can be seen all over in the forests and near the lakes with giant bells hanging from their necks. Local communities still hold traditional cow competitions and processions, followed by evening performances with famous musicians.
This, above all, is the secret charm of the region, which Julie Andrews once called, “the last paradise in this crazy world.” Local farmers, whose families have been living in the same houses for many generations, still make hobelkäse, a hard, spicy, full-fat cheese that is left to mature for 18 months before being consumed.
Only milk from cows that fed off pastures in the Alps which have not been fertilized artificially can be used to make hobelkäse.
In the olden days, the rocky steep paths in the region made it too difficult for farmers to transport the hundreds of liters of milk they accumulated, and without any adequate cooling systems, they searched for ways to make use of all this milk before it spoiled. Consequently they developed this unique cheese, which came to be known as the Gold of the Alps.
After we landed, we walked by foot to the town center, which was made up of rustic wooden houses, empty narrow alleyways, and lots of upscale boutique stores. Granted, most of us probably couldn’t afford to buy any of the items for sale in these shops, which exude an aura of luxury.
At a nearby square, there is a bronze statue sculpted by Elizabeth Taylor’s daughter Liza Todd, who went to school in the town, and a 600-year-old church in which farm workers and wealthy landowners pray side-by-side every Sunday. The houses in the town are pretty standard, and outsiders would be hard put to know which ones belonged to the former and which the latter. It’s a given that all residents will build houses that conform to the traditional style, with a maximum of three floors. I did hear rumors, though, that a few families had constructed additional floors underground for their pools, saunas and other luxuries.
In the winter months, the entire area is covered with snow and turns into one of the most desirable and prestigious ski destinations in the world. In the springtime, after the snow melts, Gstaad attracts hikers who come to enjoy the wonderful hiking trails and breathtaking Alpine landscapes. Ardent rafters take advantage of the melting snow gushing down into the rivers that flow through the valleys as they zip by on the white water.
There are dozens of beautiful walking trails around the town of varying degrees of difficulty, some of which will really put your lung capacity to a test. One easy walk is a trail that circumnavigates Lake Lauenen, which is tiny compared to other lakes in Switzerland.
On the banks of the lake with a view of valley, you’ll find a quaint mountain restaurant that serves excellent dishes of local cuisine. After a nice meal, you can set out on the fondue trail from the nearby town of Schonried, or jump on the chocolate train that passes through Gruyères, a beautiful town going back to medieval times. You can take a tour of the castle that was built in the 13th century and then stop for dessert at Maison Cailler, the legendary chocolate factory.
The perfect way to end to your visit to Gstaad is with a visit to Glacier 3000, from which you can see stunning panoramic views of 24 summits from a height of 3,000 meters, and from which you can slide down on snow sleds drawn by husky dogs – or on the tallest alpine slide in the world. You can travel from peak to peak by cable car, or by hanging bridge, from which you will have the most magnificent views.
Another amazing part of the Gstaad experience is staying in first-class luxury hotels. The Alpina Gstaad is one of the nicest, with rooms going for CHF 14,000 (roughly NIS 50,000) per night that include a private spa floor and a Jacuzzi on the balcony with a panoramic view of the Alps. Simpler rooms cost CHF 752 (NIS 2,800). The hotel boasts a dream-like pool surrounded by snow-capped mountains, a cigar hall reminiscent of Cuban bars, restaurants with extremely high ratings from the Michelin Guide, and a luxurious spa.
Alternatively, you might prefer to stay the night in the Saanerslochgrat igloo village that is constructed anew at the beginning of each winter and melts by the end of the season. You won’t find showers or running water here, but you will find a sauna and a hot tub out under the stars in the open air. You can enjoy a special fondue dinner in a mountain restaurant, have a drink in the ice bar with the artificially sculpted walls and take a walk using snowshoes or ride around on sleds.
If you’re looking for a way to visit this gorgeous region without breaking the bank, there are also plenty of picturesque wooden cabins for rent, such as Heidi Chalet, a 350-year-old house situated smack in the middle of the forest high up on the mountaintop, just a 15-minute drive from Gstaad. Guests are welcome to chop their own wood for the wood-burning fireplace, pick berries and mushrooms in the nearby surroundings, and even join the neighbor who makes his own cheese over an open flame. At a rate of CHF 280 (NIS 1,035) a night for six people (a cabin sleeps up to 20 people), visiting Switzerland becomes much more affordable.
Translated by Hannah Hochner. Originally published in Ma’ariv.