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Say cheese in Switzerland

Shiboli Chatterjee visits the Swiss Alps and basks in the mountain air, idyllic valleys and dairy delights

Davos and St Moritz
Best time to visit: Through the year
You need: A week (if not more)

Chugging along peacefully on the mountain railway or the Rhatische Bahn, watching the picturesque Swiss countryside unfold, I feel as if I am transported into the dream world of a YashRaj film.

heritage on track: The highest railway line through the Alps leads to Italy: the century-old Albula and Bernina lines of the Rhaetian Railway link northern Europe with the Mediterranean south in such a stunning manner that in summer 2008, it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site
Heritage on track: The highest railway line through the Alps leads to Italy: the century-old Albula and Bernina lines of the Rhaetian Railway link northern Europe with the Mediterranean south in such a stunning manner that in summer 2008, it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site

The comparison is inevitable, as Switzerland and its beauty have been firmly etched into the Indian psyche through Bollywood and particularly the late Yash Chopra. However, soon after leaving Zurich and venturing into a land that is as yet untapped by the Indian film industry, I learn to discover an all-new Switzerland.

window seat:  A ride on the Rhatische Bahn (Rhaetian Railway) offers the best view of the Swiss countryside. Pic/Rhaetian railway
Window seat: A ride on the Rhatische Bahn (Rhaetian Railway) offers the best view of the Swiss countryside. Pic/Rhaetian railway

As the host city of the annual World Economic Forum that draws in the most powerful heads of state, Davos conjures up images of a stark, industrial city of high-rises. Imagine my surprise when the train chugs into Davos Dorf, and it turns out to be a picture-perfect quaint little town.

Rösti consists of potatoes, egg and cheese. Originally, farmers in the canton of Bern ate it for breakfast
Rösti consists of potatoes, egg and cheese. Originally, farmers in the canton of Bern ate it for breakfast 

The mountain air and long hours of sunshine made Davos famous as a health resort since 1860, where tuberculosis patients often stayed to recuperate in the sanatoriums. Author Robert Louis Stevenson is said to have completed Treasure Island while residing in a sanatorium in Davos in 1882. The Schatzalp sanatorium, built as a luxury sanatorium on a sun-drenched plateau called Magic Mountain in 1900, was transformed into a hotel in 1953, but still retains its original Art Nouveau architecture. The quirkily named X-Ray Bar is a reminder of its days as a hospital.

Flower power: Flower boxes full of summer blooms line windows and balconies in homes across the Swiss countryside. Pics/Shiboli Chatterjee
Flower power: Flower boxes full of summer blooms line windows and balconies in homes across the Swiss countryside. Pics/Shiboli Chatterjee

Despite coming a long way from its days as a health resort, the current 11,000 inhabitants of Davos still make the most of the fresh mountain air by indulging in plenty of outdoor activities, both in the summer and winter. While winter lends itself to popular activities such as snow-boarding and skiing in summer, the locals can be seen cycling and hiking on the many mountains that surround it. It is testimony to this spirit of outdoor adventure that shops selling sportswear and equipment dot every road in the town, as ubiquitous as local kirana shops in any Indian city.

A few kilometres from Davos town, lies the village of Monstein, home to the local favourite Monsteiner beer, made in the highest-altitude brewery in Europe, at 5,300 feet above sea level.

A drive down to the idyllic Sertig valley reveals Switzerland in all its green-and-snow white splendour. Farm houses, windows decorated with summer blooms, flower
speckled meadows where cowbell-dangling cattle graze and, of course, a gorgeous mountain panorama make this the quintessential Swiss experience.

Starry St Moritz
An hour-and-a-half journey on the Rhaetian Railway takes me from Davos to the glitzy destination of St Moritz. Ever since winter tourism started as a bet by hotelier Johannes Badrutt 150 years ago (see box), St Moritz has become the winter playground of the wealthy, drawing in the glamorous jet-set from around the world.
Famous guests who made St Moritz their winter holiday destination include Alfred Hitchcock, Charlie Chaplin, Brigitte Bardot, Henry Ford and the Kennedy family. Steel tycoon Laxmi Mittal even owns a villa here.

Located at 6,089 ft above sea level, with a spectacular view of the Upper Engadin lakes, this famous destination has hosted two Winter Olympic Games (1928 and 1948). The first electric light in Switzerland shone here and even Europe’s first Palace Hotel was built here.

So proud is the place of its glamorous heritage that St Moritz registered its name as a trademark in 1986 to protect its name from misuse — the first resort to do so.

If strolling on cobbled roads and window-shopping on the lanes lined with luxury shops builds up an appetite, there are many bakeries and delicatessens one can slip into, to try the variety of snacks and desserts, including the famous Engadine walnut cake, a sweet shortcrust pastry famous of the Graubünden region.

Indian thali at 10,000 feet
Making the most of a clear, sunny day, I take a ski lift up to Diavolezza or ‘devilish mountain’ to frolic in the snow and take in the panoramic view of the surrounding mountains, the Bernina range, with the highest peak in the Eastern Alps Piz Bernina (13,284 ft) towering above. As I head into the Berghaus Diavolezza to warm myself with a hot chocolate, the waiters suggest I try one of the most popular items on the menu, the Indian thali! And it does not disappoint. Those craving for some rajma-chawal or samosa-bhajiya can certainly have a taste of home here at 10,000 feet.

The next stop on the mountain trail is at Muottas Muragl, which offers the most panoramic view of the Upper Engadin and the lake district. Mountain bikes are forbidden to ride on this wonderful hiking mountain with its leisurely paths.

As the trip draws to a close with a horse-drawn carriage ride from Pontresina along the ruggedly romantic path into the Roseg valley, where a singer serenaded guests at the restaurant Roseg Gletscher, as I take in one final view of the nearby glaciers and the gorgeous Bernina range, I realise that this may not have been a Yash Chopra film, but it sure is my very own fairytale.

The Milky Way
According to a local guide, the secret ingredient behind the quality and special flavour of the milk lies in the flowers that the cows chew on while grazing.

Dear dairy: A variety of local cheeses on display at a cheese shop in Davos
Dear dairy: A variety of local cheeses on display at a cheese shop in Davos

Whatever the reason, the fact remains that the milk produced by cattle in Switzerland is of the highest quality, thus resulting in the superior quality of two of the country’s most popular exports — cheese and milk chocolates. A popular choice which combines the local cheeses of the region with hearty meats is the Wurstsalat, a sausage salad. A speciality of the Engadine region is the Nusstorte or the walnut cake, a pastry with a filling of walnuts, honey, caramel and cream.

How a bet started winter tourism
Legend has it that in 1864, hotelier Johannes Badrutt made a bet with four English summer guests. He asked them to return to St Moritz in the winter, and if they didn’t like it he would pay for their travel to and from England. The guests came for Christmas and didn’t leave till Easter. And thus was born winter tourism in Europe.

The writer was a guest of Rhaetian Railway, Destination Davos-Klosters and St Moritz.

Fact File
How to reach: The closest airport is Zurich, which is three hours away.
Where to stay: Hotel Seehof in Davos is centrally located, on the Promenade, just a two-minute drive from the station.
In St Moritz, Hotel Schweizerhof offers a magnificent view of Lake St Moritz and the Engadin mountains.
Tips: For an overnight stay in Davos-Klosters, or two nights in St Moritz, get an all-inclusive card that allows for free travel on Rhaetian railway, cable cars, ski lifts and buses

Did you know?
In Switzerland, it is illegal to keep just one guinea pig. You have to keep them in pairs

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