How to 'cheat' at mountain climbing in Switzerland
THE easiest way to "climb" mighty mountains in Switzerland is to cheat a little.
I was in a part of the country called Valais, home to the densest concentration of snowy peaks in the Alps. It has a whopping 45 "four-thousanders" - peaks of over 4,000m in altitude - including the most famous one: the Matterhorn.
After arriving at the pretty resort town of Zermatt in the afternoon, I couldn't wait to get to the mountains. A five-minute walk from my hotel took me to the train station of Gornergrat Bahn. This is Europe's highest open-air cog railway, which climbs almost up to Gornergrat peak (3,135m).
I hopped onto the train and, soon after departure, the raw triangular mass of the magnificent Matterhorn (4,478m) sprang into view. My camera was busy - I didn't care if I looked like a tourist who had never seen a snowy mountain before.
Along the way, there were dramatic bridges and tunnels, forests of larch and pine, rocky ravines, lush valleys and mountain lakes. They talk of typical Swiss clockwork efficiency, and sure enough, my train departed and arrived at 2.24pm and 2.57pm respectively - not a minute earlier or later.
This is what I mean by "cheating" at mountain climbing - all of the vistas, none of the sweat.
At the top station, I heard strains of Bollywood music - a film crew was shooting a movie scene. I walked about and feasted my eyes on a gleaming river of ice - the second-largest glacier in the Alps, the Gorner Glacier.
All this was fine and dandy but, as a hiker, I still needed to actually trek. As I wasn't equipped with snow shoes or ice picks, I took the train down to the next station, Rotenboden, which was below the snow line.
From there, it was a gentle 10-minute downhill walk to Riffelsee lake, famous for its brilliant views of the Matterhorn reflected on its mirror-like surface. Alas, by this time, the clouds had rolled in, obscuring the peak. Nevertheless, the sheer majesty of the setting, coupled with the brisk air, was invigorating.
Hiking is one of the most popular activities in Valais. With over 400km of marked trails, every hiker can find a trail to suit him, be it to the top of mountains or, like me, using a combination of trains and legs for more relaxing walks. After a half-hour walk, I took the train down to Riffelberg to check out the 2km trail there.
At dinner that night, there was a performance involving traditional long Swiss wooden trumpets, called Alphorns. The moody melodies made me think of another tribe of mountain people who also use such long trumpets - the Tibetans.
Valais cuisine features the best produce of the mountains. I started with Fendant, a crisp local white wine.
With its 5,000ha of vineyards and 60 grape varieties, planted on steep south-facing hillsides that make the most of the sunshine, Valais is one of the centres of Switzerland's wine industry.
You can hike through the vineyards on the 50km Valais Wine Trail, which takes you through centuries-old irrigation canals and 180 wine cellars where Valais wines can be tasted.
But try not to tumble down the mountain after that.
Anyone hiking in this country will notice the many cows grazing in pristine mountain pastures - I'd like to imagine that happy cows are the reason why Alpine milk is so renowned. And when the milk is good, so are the chocolates.
Look out for the cheeses too. One classic Valais dish is raclette, which is cheese melted onto a plate. Its creaminess and distinctive flavour go well with hams, sausages, potatoes, gherkins, small onions and wine.
Raclette is also served with the famous Valais rye bread, which has a grey-brown cracked crust and a slightly acidic aroma, thanks to the high-altitude grain, mineral-rich soil and extreme temperatures.
For dessert, you have to try the local apricots, with their soft, sweet flesh, blended with cream.
The next day, I took a combination funicular train and cable car from Zermatt all the way up to the Rothorn (3,103m), a showcase for the highest peaks of the Valais Alps.
In winter, this is a gateway to various ski slopes; in summer, it's a popular starting point for vigorous hikes.
But the day's affair would be something different: I had signed up for a gourmet trek.
The idea was to have an appetiser, walk it off for 20 minutes, have a main dish somewhere else, work it off again, do dessert in a third restaurant, and then trek downhill (about an hour) all the way back to Zermatt.
What a great way to enable us to eat more.
Zermatt town was full of fancy restaurants, but it was amazing to find good food up in the mountains too.
Our first stop from the Rothorn cable-car station was Paradies restaurant, where I had a delightfully zingy salad.
Then I sauntered to Chez Vrony, a popular place in Findeln village specialising in Mediterranean food, where we had a scrumptious roast chicken in wine sauce.
It was a pity that it was cloudy and drizzling, otherwise the full glory of the mountains would have been revealed during the hike, or when sitting outdoors at the restaurants.
Nevertheless, this made me appreciate stuff that was closer at hand: the traditional timber houses with rough slate roofs and colourful wild flowers all along the trail.
Edelweiss flowers were planted at our next stop, Franz & Heidi, where we tucked into luscious chocolate cake. What a perfect way to end my trip to Valais.
Valais is celebrating its 200th anniversary of joining the Swiss Confederation this year and various events are planned, including a huge rock music festival - the Open Air Gampel - from Aug 20 to 23.
One of the best anniversary deals is the Weekend Day Pass for 29 Swiss francs (S$41), which allows you to travel all over Valais on weekends and public holidays.
Farther afield, the best way to get around the country is the Swiss Travel Pass, which offers unlimited travel on the entire rail, bus and boat network. There are also discounts on most mountain railways and cable cars. Cheaper flexi passes are also available.
One fantastic way to get to Valais is via the Glacier Express, dubbed the "world's slowest express train". It connects Zermatt with another Alpine resort, St Moritz.
Observation windows revealed vistas of luscious landscapes, including the Disentis Benedictine monastery, the 400m-deep Rhine Gorge and the 2,033m-high Oberalp Pass.
There are also cycling routes for leisure cyclists in Valais. With dozens of mountain railways and cable cars that take cyclists up to the mountains, there's a vast range of options for cyclists to try different routes.
The ultimate would be the Valais Panorama Bike tour, which connects Sion with Visp, and covers vineyards, ski resorts and picturesque mountain villages, streams and lakes.
Each summer (early June to late October), the non-profit association Valaisroule also rents out quality bikes for locals and tourists.
One intriguing event to look out for is Cycling and Valais Wine Day on Aug 1, when participants can discover Valais vineyards on a bicycle in the company of professional cyclists.
Just make sure you can still balance your bicycle afterwards.
THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK