I drove out there with a friend a few weeks ago, neither of us fully sure what to expect, but both clearly in need of an escape. Arriving at the Soliat restaurant early on a Saturday morning, where a dozen or so cars had also parked, we followed various fellow hikers across a field, arriving within moments at the cliffs.
The view was vast, expansive, shocking: we were overlooking a giant, gaping hole in the ground, surrounded by rock faces, with tiny little towns and forests in the valley below. After several minutes trying to make sense of this landscape – far too big to wrap our heads around – we followed the direction of other adventure-seekers to begin the day's journey.
As we learned, there are various hiking options available at the Creux du Van, depending on your time, fitness, and skill level. Leaving from the Restaurant Le Soliat, hikers can take a longer route down to the village of Noiraigue, which is another common departure point. The latter town also has a train station, for people without access to a car.
Another trail option will take you to the Fontaine Froide, and then onward to the Ferme Robert for a drink and an assiette of meats and cheeses. The restaurant also sells its own absinthe, which the Val-de-Travers region is known for. The local trails are generally well-marked, with a clear indication of how long a given trek should take. The trails are of medium difficulty – good hiking shoes recommended, but no ropes or other technical equipment required.
As we walked – and occasionally scrambled – downward along our chosen path that Saturday, we suddenly realized the obvious: we were climbing down into a gorge, and would eventually have to climb all the way back. We had also set a goal to find the local asphalt mines, a quest which ultimately failed: our shared sense of direction, or lack thereof, led us astray.
The way back to the Soliat gave us yet another natural wonder: after our upward climb, we arrived at the top of the cliffs, only to see a group of ibex in the field. Resembling a cross between a deer and a goat, these animals seemed at ease around people. While to us, they were exotic creatures, clearly we humans were old news. Several hikers had stopped, like us, utterly transfixed: it no longer seemed like Switzerland, yet it was.
After a cautious approach, we caught as many photos as the ibex would allow, many of them at close range. Once we'd left them behind, we crossed pastures with cows and donkeys, all similarly unfazed by having humans in their midst. While the impending darkness made it clear that it was time to drive back to Geneva, neither of us wanted to leave.
Photo: © Switzerland Tourism; swiss-image.ch / Roland Gerth