With his periwinkle blue eyes, chiseled profile, and taut torso, Ivan Volken could grace the cover of any sports magazine. But when Ivan casually mentions, “I’ve climbed most of Switzerland’s highest mountains during the past ten years,” I know today will be no ordinary walk. Our group has gathered at Eggishorn, a popular ski resort in the town of Fiesch. In summer, nature lovers ride the cable car up to 9,000 feet to hike along the spectacular Aletsch glacier. This pale grey ribbon of ice undulating through the valley is beyond impressive.
Here I’m just an insignificant human. We carefully navigate the uneven trail running high above the glacier. The slightest loss of balance means a final tumble far below. Hugging the boulders with my left shoulder, I scramble to keep up with Ivan. This environment is home for a mountain guide, but challenging for a beachcomber like me. The glacier’s hypnotic beauty below snow-dusted peaks lures me toward the pale blue horizon. Thick white clouds invite me to step out for a sky stroll.
“Our ‘Grosser Aletschgletscher’ is fifteen miles long and one mile wide,” Ivan informs me. “At 3,000 feet deep, it’s the largest and longest glacier in Europe. The first UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Alps. If we could melt this glacier, there would be enough drinking water for every person in the world for six years.
Ivan strides faster, leading our group up a steep zigzag trail. Dizzy and wind-blasted, I decide to turn back to spend solo time with the awesome glacier, which is receding more and more each year. Picking my way through the stony field, I notice dozens of “steinmanndli,” German for “little humans in stone,” piles of rocks shaped like people to aid lost hikers in fog, rain or snow. It’s comforting to know that others have turned back as well. As I’m photographing them, streams of golden sunlight transform the crystalline rocks into shining silver jewels. For five heavenly seconds, a luminous rainbow arches over the glacier—surprise gift from the Swiss Alps, just for me.
Dinosaurs and Grotto Fossati
Fossil expert Professor Andrea Tintori leads us into the shady forests of Monte San Giorgio, near Lake Lugano in southern Switzerland. “Today we will walk through time,” Professor Tintori says, smiling. “This area features outstanding fossils from the Triassic Period: 230-245 million years ago. A lagoon once covered the land, so we have found exceptional specimens of fish, ammonites, crustaceans, reptiles, insects and plants. Keep your eyes open!” Professor T. leads us down into steep ravines, where we search dry riverbeds in vain for fossils. But at a small museum in the charming village of Meride, we view an exciting exhibition of dinosaur fossils, excavated from the very places we have just explored. Ferocious-looking monsters, perfectly preserved in rock slabs, seem ready to leap alive.
“So, time travelers,” the Professor says, “you know now the importance of Monte San Giorgio. This is why the area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The World Heritage List includes 878 sites in 145 countries. And nine of those sites are located in Switzerland. Let us celebrate with wine at a Grotto.” Sure enough, trudging the country road past plump purple grapes on emerald vines, we see the sign “Grotto Fossati.” In the quiet forest, we settle happily at granite tables as the owners welcome us with Ticino Merlot. Being an international group of fossil lovers, we celebrate our morning with the charming Professor, toasting him in French, Italian, German, Russian, Polish, Chinese and Korean. We enjoy a homemade feast with sausage, braised beef, rabbit, risotto, fragrant mushrooms, and ice cream. After a morning spent dinosaur sleuthing back in time 230 million years, who would have thought we’d celebrate with fine wine and food in a secret Swiss forest?
Wellness seekers flock to picturesque Leukerbad, the largest thermal spa and wellness resort in the Alps, just a two-hour train ride east of Geneva. Guests rejuvenate by soaking in indoor and outdoor mineral spring pools, relax with some two hundred spa treatments, and slim down with healthy cuisine. Long popular with global fitness lovers, Leukerbad is a year round mecca for mountain bikers, skiers, hikers, and folks needing nurturing and life rebalance. “Wellness means both well being and fitness,” says David Kestens, Leukerbad Marketing Director. “Here guests walk in gorgeous nature, breathe clean air, soak in thermal springs, try new treatments and eat great food. Not to mention drinking our wonderful Swiss wine.”
My first treatment is a two hour Roman Bath inside The Alpentherme. This Bath involves relaxing in steam rooms, soaking in mineral pools of various temperatures, and being scrubbed at least a size smaller by a dedicated massage therapist. This delight for all the senses concludes with a blissful snooze in the “quiet room,” where cell phones and chat are forbidden. Ahhh, sublime quiet…
On Saturday, David and his children invite me on their morning family hike. Seven-year-old Yucca, five-year-old Manolo, and four-year-old Flore arrive outfitted in hiking boots and backpacks. We set out from the Lindner Hotel toward the rugged peaks rising above town. The trail veers steeply up, but how hard could this stroll be, led by a gang of adorable kiddies and their devoted Dad? The paved trail becomes a metal bridge clinging to a cliff snaking high over a rushing river. As I hesitate alongside a thundering waterfall, five-year-old Manolo takes my hand. His smile says, “Don’t be a scaredy cat, Sharon. I’m not!” When the metal bridge rises vertically, I beg my knees not to collapse, and hope the kids don’t notice I’m huffing like an old lady. They’re happily picking wild strawberries, sipping fresh mountain water from a trough, and picking purple flowers for their Dad. “My kids have hiked this mountain trail so many times,” David says proudly. Today is one of those heart-pounding, heart-warming moment in life. I can’t believe I’ve been brought to such spellbinding beauty by happy hikers all under ten and their Dad, who never stops smiling.
This being Switzerland, there’s a cable car in the middle of nowhere, which flies us to the mountain top in six minutes, where we nestle inside a cozy chalet filled with other happy hikers, everyone laughing at the tops of their lungs. David and I relax over rosti and salads; the kids slurp hot chocolate and dig into chicken nuggets and French fries. “At home, the kids mostly eat vegetables and soy burgers,” David says, “but today is special because of you.”
Who knew I’d be surprised with rainbows arching over glaciers, dinosaur fossils, grotto picnics, mineral springs, and little mountain wizards? There’s a Swiss surprise waiting for you too, just around every mountain.
If You Go:
In 2009 and 2010, Switzerland has created nine nature parks, including the Swiss National Park in the Engadine, the UNESCO World Natural Heritage sites, and the Entlebuch UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. All parks are described online at My Switzerland.
Travel to and around Switzerland is a pleasure. SWISS International Airlines enables fliers to arrive refreshed: comfortable seats transform into cozy beds, cuisine and wine are delicious, and the service is superb. SWISS flies to 72 destinations worldwide.
The Swiss Pass connects you to Switzerland’s network of rail, bus, boats, and city public transit. Plus free admission to 450 museums.
Plan Your Swiss Vacation:
Sharon Spence Lieb is creator of “The Globetrotters Travel Feature.” Email her: sharonspence @ cs.com.