CABLECARS AND FUNICULARS
Head to the mountains anywhere in Switzerland and there are plenty of opportunities to hop on a cable car or funicular to look down at the stunning scenery below. Here are some of the most impressive.
Gelmer cablecar is Europe's steepest cable car, with a 106% gradient. A single open carriage travels up backwards to Lake Gelmer, giving you an amazing panoramic view of the valley below. Within 12 minutes you climb 1412m to the lake, a perfect place to take a hike. The railway was originally built in the 1920s to help the construction of the Lake Gelmer dam. It's been open to the public since 2001. www.grimselwelt.ch
Grindelwald-Männlichen boasts one of the longest cablecar journeys in the world. It starts at 943m in the picturesque village of Grindelwald, and steadily climbs to Männlichen at 2230m. With the Jungfrau and the Eiger towering above, you will feel very small indeed. This journey was rated one of the top 10 cablecars and funiculars by National Geographic magazine. www.maennlichen.ch
TAKE THE TRAIN
If you prefer something less adrenalin-inducing, then why not explore Switzerland's heights by rail? The Glacier Express is one of the most spectacular train rides in the world. The journey from St Moritz to Zermatt takes in a UNESCO world heritage landscape of valleys and gorges. It travels through 91 tunnels and over 291 bridges at a leisurely pace, perfect to relax and enjoy the sights. Other popular trips include the Bernina Express through the Alps, an unforgettable journey that starts in the glaciers of the mountains, and ends in the swaying palms of Italy. The section between Thusis and Tirano is also a UNESCO world heritage site. www.rhb.ch
HOT AIR BALLOONING
While not for the faint-hearted, hot air ballooning is described by those who do it as bringing an incredible feeling of freedom. Since you're being pushed along by the wind, you don't feel like you're moving at all, only noticing the scenery changing beneath you. In an open-air basket, you really are touching the sky.
Hot air ballooning is very much dependent on the weather. The wind must be very gentle and because all the navigation is visual, and the sky must be clear, which is not the case every day in Switzerland. If you've ever noticed that balloons tend to come out around sunset or sunrise, that's when the wind is best for flying.
Another logistical issue is not knowing where you'll land, so every balloon needs a retrieval vehicle to bring it and the occupants back to their starting point. All of this means that unless you have your own balloon and a balloon pilot's license, you may well have to book several months in advance with one of the companies offering hot air balloon rides for individuals.
Balloon baskets come in a range of sizes, some big enough for only the pilot and others able to carry a dozen people, but in general it's an outing for two to four people. It's not usually recommended for children under twelve, who may also not be tall enough to see over the side of the basket.
Switzerland has some famous names in hot air ballooning, especially Auguste Piccard, who broke a number of altitude records in the 1930s, and his grandson Bertrand Piccard who with Brian Jones was the first to circumnavigate the globe non-stop by balloon.
Switzerland's Alpine terrain, combined with its wealth of lakes, offers the perfect launch-pad for the popular sport of paragliding. Much less intense than skydiving – never mind the expensive flights by aeroplane to get you aloft – or as extreme as base-jumping, tandem paragliding offers you a safe way to experience flying.
There are many paragliding centres scattered all over the more mountainous areas of the country: Verbier, the Lake of Geneva region, the Valais and the Grisons for example. But one of the most popular areas, combining mountain massifs with a multitude of lakes, is around Interlaken.
A first flight usually lasts up to 20 minutes, is undertaken in tandem with a qualified paragliding instructor, and requires no training or previous experience on the part of the client. Many of the paragliding schools will offer flights in the form of gift vouchers.
A typical such flight launches from Beatenberg, just a 20-minute drive from Interlaken, taking the client on a thrilling ride through the air 800m above the lakes of Thun and Brienz. As an added bonus, they offer photos and/or videos of the flight, taken with special telephoto lenses, as a permanent souvenir of the flight.
SWEEPING SWISS WINDS
"It's an ill wind that blows no good," as the cliché goes. Some people in Switzerland seem preoccupied with two such winds, the Foehn and the Bise.
The Foehn is a warm, dry wind that starts as moist air over the Mediterranean, but loses its moisture when it reaches the south slopes of the Alps. It then heats up quickly as it blows down the north slopes. The Foehn can raise temperatures by as much as 20C and gets blamed for lots of problems.
Snow can suddenly melt and increase the danger of avalanches. Pilots have to take special care when flying over the Alps during the Foehn and mountain climbers also have to be prepared for extra difficulties. Then there are a whole host of maladies falling under the heading of Föhnkrankheit (Foehn illness). People frequently complain of headaches or migraines, circulatory problems, difficulty sleeping, agitation, fatigue, depression and even psychosis. Studies show that accidents and suicides also increase when the Foehn blows.
Of course it isn't all bad: the warm wind causes some people to get the euphoric feeling of Föhnrausch (Föhn euphoria). And an unseasonably warm spell brought on by the Foehn can be a welcome respite from an otherwise wet and chilly autumn.
The Bise is a cold, dry wind from the northeast that blows through the middle of Switzerland. The Geneva area gets the brunt as the wind is channeled through the passage between the Jura Mountains and the Alps. In summer the Bise is responsible for dry and sunny weather, but in winter it can bring bone-chilling temperatures and ice storms like the one in February 2012 that turned the banks of Lake Geneva into an ice sculpture.
A BAR WITH ALTITUDE
Situated on the top floor of Geneva airport, the Altitude Bar and Restaurant is not only a good place to relax while waiting for a flight, but its location means it's perfectly placed for a business meeting.
It's possible to fly in from dozens of European destinations, hold a day meeting in one of the Altitude's seven function rooms, then fly home the same day – all without the cost of an overnight stay. The flight screens in the Altitude keep passengers informed of the status of their flight, and the floor-to-ceiling windows across the entire bar and meeting rooms enable travellers to keep an eye out for their own plane on the tarmac outside.
The Altitude has also become a popular place for locals to meet for a drink or a meal. When this editor visited the bar early one Friday evening, a meeting was winding down in one of the conference rooms and the lounge bar was humming with customers. Meanwhile, families with children were chatting over drinks while looking onto the view of the Jura mountains beyond the airport.
The restaurant itself boasts Michelin-starred chefs at the helm. Business lunch menus start at CHF 49 for a main course and dessert. In the evening, parking is offered free (based on a minimum consumption of CHF 50). www.altitude-geneva.ch