Switzerland may just be my favorite country. I’ve hiked its demanding mountain trails, skied its endless slopes, and pedaled six of its nine challenging national bike routes across the country. This time I was on an “agroturismo” press trip.
Hiking, wine tasting, visiting farms, joining festivals, savoring local cuisine – we (a group of eight journalists plus a Swiss guide) did it all.
It got off to a delicious start in Ticino, southern Switzerland where Italian is spoken and the ambience seems more la dolce vita than Swiss efficiency. We stayed at a small hotel in the vineyards, Fattoria L’Amorosa (www.amorosa.ch) Ticino is known for excellent wines, especially Merlot. One of the courses of the welcome dinner featured risotto, a Ticinese favorite replacing pasta. (See recipe at right for Spinach Risott0)
We toured a winery which, in addition to grapes, grows rice – the world’s northernmost rice plantation. It’s called Loto rice and is used for risotto. After purchasing packages of Loto at the shop, where the farm’s wines are also for sale, we tasted some excellent vintages. www.terreniallamaggia.ch
A bus took us up a narrow, windy mountain road in the Verzasca Valley high above a surging mountain river where tiny villages perched on nearby mountain sides: the stereotype image of beautiful Switzerland. Our destination was the village of Sognogno where more photo musts awaited. Here wool shorn from local sheep is spun and dyed (using only natural products for color), then made into wooly articles such as sweaters and scarves.
Hiking in the Alps is what draws many to Switzerland. We did not do any all-day treks to the high peaks, but we did enjoy several scenic shorter hikes. The Chestnut Trail from the village of Vezio in Ticino led us through groves of these magnificent trees. We learned that chestnuts have been a food staple in the area for centuries. We shared the trail in places with numerous entertaining goats — a pair of bucks even staged a battle for us.
In central Switzerland (where German is spoken) we hiked up in the hills from the village of Flühli. The trail took us to several Kneipp stations. Kneipp is a type of “kur” therapy based on water, mainly very cold water. We walked like storks, prancing up and down around a water walkway in a freezing mountain pond. Then, we moved on to a station with a hose for spraying your face with the ice bath. Finally a place for submerging arms. A guide provided explanations and instructions of proper technique, but you could easily give it a go on your own. It’s chilly, but refreshing and said to do wonders for your health. www.fluehli-wasser.ch
Our final hike was an educational experience in the Moorlands, the UNESCO Biosphere Entlebuch near Luzern. Barefoot, we followed a guide off the trail back into the swampy landscape. We sank in the squishy mud as he provided fascinating info on the terrain, its insects and plant life. We saw carnivorous plants, an ant hill whose ants don’t bite (actually they do bite, but the bite is not supposed to penetrate human skin, however one with a mighty chopper got me), a tiny frog and more. www.biosphaere.ch
We had fun at two local festivals during our week-long journey. In Mendrisiotto near the Italian border we joined locals at a jovial wine fest: music, singing, all kinds of tempting food, and plenty of wine. Revelers crowded the narrow streets and courtyards where vintners had their stands. We tasted the wine along with roast suckling pig that had been turning on a spit above an open fire. www.mendrisiottoturismo.ch
Cows were the focus of the festival, the Alpabfahrt, in Schuepfheim in central Switzerland. Crowds congregate along the village streets to watch the parade of beasts as they come back to the valley after spending the summer in high mountain pastures. It’s a jolly event with the cows all decked out in flower wreaths, their massive bells clanging as they tread by, spectators cheering and jostling for the best photo opps — and lots of cheese and wurst stands for the hungry.
One night during our travels we stayed on a farm , a large one with many rooms for guests. Toilet and shower facilities are shared. For extra economy, you can opt to “sleep in the straw” – a room with a plank of straw and pillows. During our visit, a father with two young boys spent the night in the hay. They loved it. You need a sleeping bag. The farm dinner that night included a buffet with 23 different kinds of local cheese. www.berggasthaus-salwideli.ch
A wake-up call at 5:30 a.m. got us off to an early start on our next to last day. We took a short walk to the cheese dairy farm Gerschnialp where cows were being milked. Milking is all done by machine, but we had the opportunity to try the hand method – very easy to get squirted with a stream of milk as I found out. We watched and helped with the numerous steps in the cheese-making process. And, we tasted the final products that had been aging on shelves in temperature-controlled rooms.
Yet another walk as the sun was edging over the peaks and basking the mountains in a rosy glow –past fields of cows now back in their pastures with their bells clanging as they munched on grass, then through the woods to a cable car station for the scenic ride up to Mount Titlis (3,020 meters elevation) above the town of Engleberg. The viewing terrace at the top is camera heaven. A popular attraction is a spooky walk through a dark glacier grotto. A ride on the Ice Flyer, a chair lift that takes you down over glacier crevasses, then back up, is spectacular.
My very favorite part of the Titlis visit was on the way down. Instead of riding the cable car to the bottom, we got off at the Gerschnialp station and hopped on Trotti bikes (like scooters), You stand on the bike platform, then head down a mountain lane at top speed, soaring around curves, faster and faster. It’s thrilling. I wanted to go again. www.titlis.ch; www.engleberg.ch
See below for more photos. Click on photo to see full size. And, try some delicious risotto. Click on Spinach Risotto under recipes at right. Comments — and subscribers — welcome