Scenic splendours and captivating cities

Date Posted: 16/08/2012

PIctured: Biel is the heart of the Swiss watchmaking industry (Photo credit: Switzerland Tourism).

Alps, lakes, meadow-covered landscapes and historic cities make Switzerland one of the world’s most beautiful countries.

If Mother Nature held a beauty contest, Switzerland would stand head and shoulders above the rest, with its snow-capped mountains such as the mighty Matterhorn, crystal clear lakes, pure fresh air, pretty villages of wooden houses and sophisticated cities.

Another part of Switzerland’s appeal is its diversity. The different regions, or cantons, boast distinctive food, culture, architecture and even languages influenced by surrounding countries including France and Germany.

In a country famous for watches, the Swiss transport system really does run like proverbial clockwork, which is a huge help with itinerary planning. The main cities are well served by budget and scheduled airlines, and SWISS, the national carrier, has increased its flights from the UK including new twice-daily flights from London City, which is useful for groups based in the capital.

In total the airline offers 35 daily flights from Birmingham, Dublin, Edinburgh, London and Manchester to Basel, Geneva and Zurich. Another option is to travel by train, taking your group trip on the Eurostar from London to Paris with onward journeys to Geneva, Lucerne, Berne, Basel or Zurich on the high-speed TGV Lyria train.

Water wonders

Throughout 2012, the tourist board is showcasing the country’s lakes, glaciers, waterfalls and rivers with a marketing campaign called Year of Water. With more than 7,000 lakes, you don’t need to travel far to find one, often with the stunning backdrop of mountains reflected in the water.

Four of the largest lakes; Constance, Geneva, Lucerne and Maggiore, are among the perennially popular group destinations. Bordered by three countries, Constance is the third largest lake in central Europe. Kreuzlingen, the largest town on the Swiss shoreline, developed from the union of three medieval villages.

From here, group travel organisers can visit St Ulrich's basilica and the 14th century Bernrain Chapel - a stop on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela. Inland is the interesting Napoleon Museum in Arenenberg Castle, where Napoleon III spent his youth in exile from France.

An unmissable sight in elegant Geneva on the Swiss and French border is the jet d’eau - a liquid landmark on the lake that throws water 140 metres into the air. The flower clock at the edge of the Jardin Anglais is a novel public timepiece, and other top attractions include St Peter’s Cathedral, where the north tower offers panoramic views of the city and lake, and bustling Place du Bourg-de-Four with its 16th century buildings.

Encircled by mountains in the heart of the country, Lucerne is an incredibly scenic destination. Groups can explore its wooden bridges, ancient city walls and historic old town, and also learn about the local connections with the legendary national hero of liberty, William Tell. Setting off by boat to Alpnachstad, groups can take the world’s steepest cogwheel railway to the summit of Lucerne’s highest peak, Mount Pilatus, or take the rack railway to the top of Mount Rigi.

Lake Maggiore extends from the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland into Italy and has a real Mediterranean feel. One of the sunniest parts of the country, the climate is perfect for gentle strolls along the shores lined with palm trees, before discovering green valleys leading to tiny stone villages and breath-taking Alpine scenery.

A highlight of any visit any to the lakes is a cruise, and in addition to modern vessels, there are atmospheric paddle steamers that will provide your members with both lasting memories and wonderful photos to take home.

City living

Clean and safe, Switzerland’s diverse cities are packed with culture and history. Berne, the capital, is renowned for its UNESCO-listed medieval old town and the longest covered shopping arcades in Europe, so your group members can enjoy some retail therapy whatever the weather. The city’s coat of arms features a bear, and groups will enjoy watching Berne’s resident bears in their riverside park, which replaced the bleak bear pit where they were once housed.

Zurich, the largest city, occupies a riverside location with a magnificent view of the snow-capped Alps in the background. Also, for art-loving groups, Zurich has a lot to offer as 14 of its 50 museums are devoted to art. In complete contrast to the historic quarter, with its small galleries and book shops, is Bahnhofstrasse, the mile-long street of banks lined with exclusive fashion boutiques, department stores and cafes.

Basel, set on the river Rhine, is compact and walkable. Your group members can stroll around the beautifully preserved old town with its richly decorated red sandstone town hall before visiting the Romanesque-gothic cathedral that offers impressive views towards the Vosges mountains. Basel boasts Switzerland’s largest zoo and also has the highest density of museums in the country.

Tempting train trips

A pioneering masterpiece among mountain railways, the Jungfrau Railway is celebrating its centenary in 2012. The cogwheel railway will take your group on a breathtaking journey from Kleine Scheidegg to the highest train station in Europe at 3,454 metres above sea level. The trip offers amazing views of the mountain giants Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau, and the longest river of ice in the Alps. Discounted tickets are offered to groups of ten or more.

If you’re staying in the Montreux region, a trip on the Swiss chocolate train, part of the scenic Golden Pass line, is an irresistible treat. Travel in an elegant 19th century carriage on a round trip from Montreux to visit a cheese dairy in the medieval town of Gruyeres, before a tour and tasting at Broc’s Cailler-Nestle factory in Broc. The chocolate train runs from June to October.

Best of the rest

Freiburg: Nestled on a rock promontory and surrounded on three sides by the Saane river, Freiburg is one of the largest medieval towns in the Uechtland region in western Switzerland. Groups will enjoy taking the funicular that links the town centre to Basse-Ville, the lower area of the town. Nearby attractions include the village of Gruyeres, where you can see the famous cheese of the same name being produced.

Biel: The heart of the Swiss watchmaking industry lies at the eastern end of Lake Biel, and is notable as being Switzerland’s only bilingual town where German and French are spoken in equal measure. It is an attractive starting point for excursions to Biel and the other two Jura lakes, Neuchatel and Murten.

Chur: A history stretching back 5,000 years makes Chur the country’s oldest city, and today it is capital of the Graubünden region in eastern Switzerland. During a guided city tour, groups will hear stories ranging from civil wars to amusing anecdotes from times of peace. It is a good destination for groups that enjoy the great outdoors as the regional mountain, the Brambruesch, has winter and summer sports regions. It is also an idea spot for visits to vineyards in the Bundner Herrschaft winemaking region.

Top three sights

1. Chillon Castle: Immortalised by Lord Byron's poem The Prisoner of Chillon, the dramatic 13th century water castle is located on a rocky inlet on the banks of Lake Geneva

2. Chapel Bridge:  Dating back to 1332, and meticulously reconstructed after a devastating fire in 1993, the covered wooden bridge and chapel spanning the river Reuss is the symbol of Lucerne.

3. Interlaken: Known as the city between the lakes, Interlaken and its idyllic surrounding scenery are the epitome of picture postcard Switzerland.

Switzerland Essentials

Eat: Tasty Swiss dairy products are used for everything including yoghurt, creamy sauces served with meat and fish, cakes, cheese and, of course, chocolate. Drawing influences from neighbouring Germany, France and Italy, you’ll also find plenty of choice on the menus, including pizza and pasta.
Drink: Swiss wine is among the country’s best-kept secrets, yet vineyards producing fruity white can be found in the countryside just ten minutes outside Geneva. Still and sparkling apple juice is delicious and refreshing, and cherry, pear, plum and other fiercely flavoured schnapps, allegedly beneficial for the digestion, also abound.

Try: A raclette where you scrape melted cheese from a huge block in the centre of the table and eat it with potatoes and assorted cold meats – a great communal meal for groups.
Buy: Watches – colourful Flik Flak models for children - cuckoo clocks, Swiss army knives, cheese and chocolate.
Go: Spring is a beautiful time of year to see flowers in bloom and summer is pleasantly warm, with temperatures rarely peaking beyond 26C. The ski season runs from December to April.

Factfile

Flight time: 1hr 45mins to Zurich.
Time difference: GMT +1hr.
Currency: Swiss franc £1= CHF1.50.
Language: English is widely spoken but it’s interesting to note Switzerland has four official languages; French, German, Italian and Romansch, the latter derived from Latin.

Useful contact:

Switzerland Tourism:
020-7845 7680
www.myswitzerland.com

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