Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 13, 2017
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The hills are alive

In Switzerland, you're always a hop, skip and a yodel from a great Alpine excursion

One of my favourite things to do when I am in Switzerland for work is to play hooky. Who can concentrate on conference lectures or revising text when those mountains beckon? Really, haven't we all, at one time or another, pictured ourselves in an Alpine pasture surrounded by edelweiss and snow-capped peaks, swirling around like Julie Andrews -- or is that just me?

Regardless, Switzerland is designed to indulge any Alpine yen, and you don't need to be a mountain climber to do it. Nature is never far away. Even in the capital, Bern, or major cites like Zurich and Geneva, you can easily find your way into one of those picture-postcard panoramas in no time.

I once walked out of my hotel in central Zurich and, only 30 minutes and a funicular ride later, I was walking along a well-marked, leafy trail high above crystal blue Lake Zurich.

There is almost no point in Switzerland that isn't a short train, boat or funicular ride away from a yodel-inspiring landscape. With 60,000 kilometres of hiking trails, many in and around urban areas, and an amazingly dense and efficient public transport system, you can always indulge in an afternoon of Heidi-like adventure even if you're in the city.

The following are just a few of the many walking and hiking day trips from three of Switzerland's cities: Zurich, Bern and Geneva. So go ahead, play hooky, and find your inner Julie Andrews.

Zurich
Often topping the list of the world's most liveable cities, Zurich is well known for its staid bankers (rather tongue-in-cheekily referred to as "gnomes") and elegant Bahnhofstrasse, one of the most expensive shopping streets in the world.

But despite its cosmopolitan air, Zurich is an outdoorsy city at heart, as is much of Switzerland, and you'd be hard pressed to find a Swiss resident without a pair of hiking boots in his or her closet. Surrounded by wooded slopes at the north end of pristine Lake Zurich, and with a population of less than 400,000, the city is also small enough to make nature a part of urban life.

A favourite hiking escape for locals is the 871-metre Uetliberg, which can be summited by foot or by a 20-minute train ride.

At the top, after admiring the jaw-dropping views of the district and the Alpine Range (you can see the peak of Jungfrau on clear days), I walked the Planetenweg, a two-hour "planetary path" that follows the mountain ridge above Lake Zurich and features models of the planets. Honestly, I didn't stop to look at the models, I was too engrossed by the landscape: blue lake views to one side and rolling pastures dotted with cows and classic wooden Swiss houses on the other.

At the path's end in Felsenegg, a funicular links up with a train that zooms back to Zurich in 10 minutes. You can also continue walking: at almost every trail end, there are always others that begin.

If your quads have had enough of mountainous ascents, there are flat, easy walking trails all around Lake Zurich. Begin in the city and wander along the lakeside Utoquai, or hop on a boat for a scenic ride across the 29-kilometre lake.

There are numerous stops along the way where you can step off and find a walking path back to Zurich or into the surrounding hills. I sailed to the far north shore of the lake and got off at the town of Rapperswil, known for its imposing medieval castle and the longest wooden bridge in the country. The 841-metre wooden footbridge crosses to the south side of the lake and offers still more spectacular views.

Bern
Dramatically wrapped around a bend in the Aare River, Bern feels both cosmopolitan and just a bit old-fashioned. It is a medieval city (and a UNESCO Heritage Site) filled with vistas of Gothic spires and red-tiled roofs, as well as the seat of the Swiss government.

It's also a green city where riverside paths lead to gardens, parks and up to the high point of the city, the 858-metre Gurten that offers divine panoramic views. There are also the 13-hectare Zoological Gardens within the city limits. They contain a dense, riverside forest home to bison, reindeer and elk that can make you forget you are in a capital city.

 

With classic Swiss organization, hikers can find signposted walking trails within the city leading out into the surrounding countryside. One of the newest city-to-nature walks is the Wege zu Klee, ("Paths to Klee"), a series of trails following in Bern-born artist Paul Klee's footsteps through the city to the new Paul Klee Centre (www.paulkleezentrum.ch), found in rolling green hills just outside the city.

I followed the trail across the river into surprisingly green suburbs dotted with a mix of new and traditional Bernese houses -- wooden houses with long, low-pitched roofs and carved gables. I was surrounded by pastures of horses and sheep; all landscapes which Klee had captured in his paintings.

Bern is also a short train ride from one of Switzerland's loveliest natural regions, the Bernese Oberland, containing some of Switzerland's most majestic peaks. Take a train to Interlaken (55 minutes), and follow the historic Höheweg (High Path) promenade that has been dropping jaws for centuries with its dazzling views of the 3475-metre Jungfrau.

Or continue up to the Jungfraujoch on the highest rack railway in Europe, and walk in the rocky moonscape of the high Alps. But bring warm clothes and good boots; I could see my breath when walking there in the early summer. After an hour or so of walking, I happily stumbled into a cosy mountain lodge for a hot chocolate and a warm fire.

Geneva
Filled with bureaucrats and international organizations, Geneva has a reputation for being all paperwork and no fun. But anyone who has been to this multicultural city knows that theory has as many holes as a piece of Swiss cheese. The city is set where the Rhone River meets the 72-kilometre long Lake Geneva and in view of the famous Mont-Blanc.

If you're bored in Geneva, you just aren't trying. For walkers, there are more excursions in and around this city than cow bells in a mountain pasture. Ascend Geneva's own mountain, the Salève (670 metre). For stunning views extending over the lake, try the Savoy Alps and Jura Mountains. Do the round trip (5.6 kilometres each way) on foot or take the funicular.

One of my favourite things is walking in vineyards, and the region offers many opportunities to do just that with a Swiss twist. There is a wine trail (about three hours) in and around the village of Dardagny, which can be reached by Geneva city bus. The trail passes through rolling vineyards and offers opportunities to taste the local Chasselas and Gamay cepages.

More vineyard trails are found in nearby Lausanne (30 minutes by train), home to the Lavaux Vineyards, which became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007. Covering about 30 kilometres, the vineyards climb steep slopes along Lake Geneva, and, on a sunny day, offer stunning, almost mirage-like views of the Savoy Alps and shimmering lake.

If you're the type who wants an Alpine peak and nothing less, then continue on to Montreux (55 minutes by train from Geneva). This city, known for jazz, is also the starting point for a trip to the awe-inspiring summit of Rochers-de-Naye (2045 kilometres). After a short cog-train ride, the trail (which takes about four hours) climbs over 1000 metres, an effort rewarded by perhaps the most ubiquitous thing in Switzerland: a mind-bogglingly beautiful panorama.

Now that's worth playing hooky for.

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