Experiencing the Swiss Alps
January 1, 1970
by Nathalie Ciara Walker
The second best thing about living in Switzerland is the outrageously good chocolate. It’s not a rumor, I dare you to bite into a hazelnut milk bar by Confiserie Sprüngli and tell me it’s doesn’t taste like a creation from heaven. The best thing, though, is that no matter where you are, you’re never more than an hour away from a mountain to climb. A hike through a scenery of green pastures, winding forest paths, crystal glacier lakes and breathtaking snowy peaks is an everyday occurrence for the Swiss.
When the beautiful city of Zürich just felt too crowded and too stressful last weekend, I grabbed a bag of belongings and a hiking companion and up to the mountains we went.
Switzerland is officially a federal republic, but due to its history still goes by the name “Confederation of Helvetia” (CH for short), as it was an alliance of alpine valley regions up until 1848. Although the country is now autonomous, the division into smaller regions still persists. Since the entire country is about half the size of South Carolina, it would be a bit of a stretch to call them states, so they go by the title of cantons. The cantons Valais and Graubünden arguably offer the best ski resorts and hiking trails. For our weekend getaway, we chose Arosa, a picturesque ski resort in the canton of Graubünden at 6000 feet. It is best accessed by way of the small red mountain train leaving from Chur.
Arosa-Lenzerheide is my personal favorite ski resort in Switzerland. It offers some of the best freeriding options, as well as amazing slopes for all, beginners to experts. If you go up to Arosa during the winter, the place is covered in a blanket of white with ski trails everywhere. Squirrels live in the area, not the large red American squirrels, no, dainty little dark brown things hopping through the snowy branches. They are very shy creatures, but are always happy to eat nuts and seeds out of your hand. The feeding is encouraged by the local authorities. Generally, you’re allowed to do pretty much anything in Switzerland. Rules such as no drinking outside, no feeding wild animals, or no trespassing (as aforementioned) are quite foreign to the Swiss.
As well-known and travelled as Arosa might be in the wintertime, it tends to be forgotten in the summer, although it is fantastic for mountain bikers, hikers and sun worshippers likewise.
We started bright and early on a 6:30am train, armed with a backpack full of sleeping necessities and what we like to call adventure food (fruit and carrot sticks, granola bars, nuts and a ton of water). While my companion slept through the journey, I stared drowsily out the window at the cloudy, overcast landscape, downing a huge thermo flask of coffee.
When we arrived in Arosa at around 9am, the fog had already lifted and the sun was warming the small village up. Since my family owns a small mountain chalet up here, I know the place inside and out, but the beauty of the nature still takes my breath away every time. For some reason, far away from the city lights and bad air, the stars shine brighter, the grass is greener and lusher, the glacier lakes sparkle in 50 shades of turquoise and the sky is a deeper blue.
If you go to Arosa, there is a small cafe close to the train station called Lindenmann Overtime. Serving as a popular après-ski bar in winter time, in the summer it’s the perfect place for a good fix of java, enjoying the view of the small lake called the Untersee.
After taking in the scenery, we started on our hike. We chose a 17k trail starting at the Untersee going via the mountain villages Medergen and Sapün back down to the valley village Langwies. These once bustling mountain villages, founded back in the 13th century by a Germanic tribe called the Walser, are now practically inhabited. Luxuries such as electricity or running water are unknown in the old wooden chalets.
Here are some rules to hiking in Switzerland:
- There’s no such thing as bad weather, there’s just bad clothing. (Also, winter hiking in Uggs or Moonboots is not an option. Don’t try it.)
- Follow the yellow tin signs, Dorothy, I promise you’ll end up in Oz. (The bright yellow tin arrows point out the hiking trails).
- If your hike takes you through a field of cows, just go on, it’s not a mistake. The cows are used to it and won’t bother it. (Still, don’t try to sit down and cuddle them. They’re not pets.)
- Pass a water fountain, fill up that bottle. The water is not only drinkable, it’s also bloody good.
- Phone signal: No, the mountains don’t have WiFi. Put down the iPhone and take in nature’s best hotspot on its own (although you might want to take a few photos).
- Sunscreen is always a good idea. Kleenex is too.
- Bring small snacks and have lunch at one of the mountain huts, called Bergbeizen (and pronounced Bear-gh-by-tsen), owned by self-sufficient farmers. If you think that cows and chicken in the front yard means there might not be a large selection of gluten-free or vegan options, you’re spot on. Go ahead and order a plate of Roesti (the signature Swiss dish of golden, pan-fried hashbrowns) topped with fresh eggs, tomatoes and the possibly best cheese you will ever eat. Add a side of bacon if you’re extra hungry.
- I cannot stress the footwear enough. The paths can be unsteady and steep. Wear solid hiking boots or at least really good running shoes.
- Wear layers and bring a light raincoat. The weather can easily change multiple times during the day.
- Take only memories and photos. Leave only footprints. (Seriously, don’t litter).
We passed a few cows along the way, including a curious little calf. At one point, two elderly men passed us with a large plastic bag.
“Good morning,” they greeted us. “It’s a great season for mushrooms. You’ll find quite a few if you keep your eyes opened.”
Instantly, our sense of adventure was piqued. Not having thought of bringing a bag, we got creative and knotted up an extra shirt of mine to create a cotton carrier for our prey. Our quest turned out to be successful, as we found a decent amount of porcini and chanterelles, the two most popular mushrooms in the Swiss Alps. If you are a mushroom expert, I recommend picking a few. We later on used them in a white wine reduction cream sauce and had them with Spaetzli (pronounced Sh-pet-slee), a typical Swiss soft egg noodle, for dinner, and they were simply delicious.
After a steep uphill climb, we took a small break and had some fruit and hard-boiled eggs on a beautiful bench overlooking one of the many small lakes on the way. I am again and again surprised at the amount of creeks, small rivers, ponds and lakes scattered all throughout Switzerland. There are so many that a lot of them just go by the names of Untersee, Obersee or Stausee (which basically mean “lake below”, “lake above” and “reservoir lake”).
Along the way, we passed many beautiful, old chalets. Most of them have been around for more than 400 years, and the wood is weathered and sunburnt.
After a long day of hiking, we were happy to come down to the village of Langwies, where we took the red mountain train for one stop over the viaduct (an old Roman style bridge crossing) to Arosa. After a hot shower, we got a fire going in the old stone fireplace, and started cooking. Our delicious dinner was accompanied by a small glass of Bündner Röteli, a strong traditional cherry liquor, and topped off by a slice of the delicious famous Bünder Nusstorte from the region, a butter shortbread cake with a filling of chopped walnuts and salted caramel. “What a wonderful way to relax and shake off the worries of everyday life down in the city,” said my friend, and I wholeheartedly agree.