We’re in the middle of a snowy landscape, surrounded by a heavy-laden firkin forest and pristine hillsides. The candle in my lantern struggles to illuminate in the deep cold. When we stop walking, cease the crunching of feet and the rustling of coats, the silence is profound.
I think I must be in Switzerland and it must be nearly Christmas. We pass a group of typical Emmental farmhouses, isolated in this mountainous country. Immensely broad, hunkered down in the snow they have smoothly sloping roofs like half extended wings, delicate wood carvings over the doorway and tiny window panes.
Gathered around the main house are smaller cottages – like chickens around a mother hen – for grandparents, uncles and aunts. In the front I can make out the snowy outlines of a typical formal garden.
You may have heard of the cheese but the Emmental is a part of Switzerland where the Swiss go on holiday. Hiking in summer in the hilly forested country in the foothills of the great Swiss Alps. There is little in the way of objective hazard here and well-marked paths.
I am discovering the magic of winter in the Emmental and our lantern-lit walk started at Trachselwald castle, making its way through a winter wonderland in the late afternoon darkness. We reach a clearing to find flasks of warm gluhwein and punsch, homemade Christmas cookies and dried fruit. Our guide gets a bonfire going and stakes the clearing with burning torches. Warmed from without and within, the group chats and then fall quiet to enjoy the silence.
Down in the valley are the lights of Sumiswald and the traditional Gasthof zum Kreuz awaits with pots of steaming gruyere (plus a dash of kirsch and whatever other secret ingredients make Swiss fondue so delicious). It is the twinkly part of winter, when every house is lit up and a great branch of evergreen overshadows each doorway.
Where better place to visit at advent time than the Aebi Pottery in the village of Trubschachen, world famous in Switzerland for its handmade, traditional goods and both Christmas and summer exhibitions. I watched the clay turning on the wheels and the painting of delicate dots creating motifs of flowers and figures made famous by this fourth-generation family business.
All too soon it was time to return to Bern, Switzerland’s political capital and an often-overlooked city on the tourist radar. This is about to change with new direct flights starting in March 2011 from London City Airport. With its gorgeous old town and relaxed atmosphere, I soon discovered Bern certainly deserves to be much better known.
The medieval sandstone arcades lining the old cobbled streets have been recognised as a protected World Heritage Site by Unesco and also make for a very pleasant shopping experience. The six kilometres of arcades were built after a devastating fire in 1405. In the Middle Ages these were once houses where families sold their wares out the front but now attractive boutiques and cafes tempt Christmas shoppers.
Tucked away under one of Bern’s arcades is one of the city’s many cellar restaurants. The Ratskeller offers hearty Bernese fare and I particularly loved the rich Berner Gerstensuppe (pearl barley soup).
After dinner a visit to the Kornhauskeller pretty much guarantees a good night. This massive underground space of dining tables and bar areas was once a granary but is also considered an outstanding example of the Swiss High Baroque style. Relaxing back into a cosy sofa I enjoyed viewing the Munger frescoes decorating the soaring, arched ceiling.
Of course the Bernese are mad keen on their winter sports, and they are certainly spoilt for choice with many of the best ski areas in the Valais and the Bernese Oberland only an hour’s drive away.
Bern has two set-piece highlights, the cathedral with its tall spire and the clock tower, where the bears dance around, a rooster crows three times and Father Time strikes his bells with fascinating regularity. From the top you can see the misty mountain peaks and a tour (by arrangement) of the 1530 mechanism reveals that the clock shows an amazing wealth of information, including the time of year and the phases of the moon.
In summer the city hosts a popular music festival but I was happy peering out through the arcades to see the icicles dripping off the many street fountains and the lights glittering from the Christmas market stalls. Whatever the season, this is a part of Switzerland that deserves further attention.
More information about holidays in Switzerland:
For more information on holidays in Switzerland visit www.MySwitzerland.com or call the Switzerland Travel Centre on the International freephone 00800 100 200 30. You can also contact them by e-mail: for information email email@example.com; for packages, trains and air tickets email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Swiss International Air Lines (SWISS) SWISS operates daily flights from London Heathrow, London City, Birmingham and Manchester to Zurich. Fares start from £89.* return, including all airport taxes. (*Please note this is a leading fare and is subject to change, availability and may not be available on all flights. Terms and conditions apply.) For reservations call 0845 601 0956 or visit the SWISS website.
SWISS operates daily flights from London Heathrow, London City, Birmingham and Manchester to either Zurich, Geneva or Basle. Fares start from £77.* return, including all airport taxes. (*Please note this is a leading fare and is subject to change, availability and may not be available on all flights. Terms and conditions apply.) For reservations call 0845 601 0956 or visit the SWISS website.
The Swiss Travel System provides a dedicated range of travel passes and tickets exclusively for visitors from abroad. The Swiss Transfer Ticket covers a round-trip between the airport/Swiss border and your destination. Prices are £79 in second class and £120 in first class (correct at the time of writing). For the ultimate Swiss rail specialist call Switzerland Travel Centre on 00800 100 200 30 or visit the Swiss Travel System website