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Swiss beauty reads like a novel

Lucy Tomlinson dreams in Murten

Published on June 7th 2011.

Swiss beauty reads like a novel

WE all know what Switzerland is about: knives with 700 apps, melted cheese, cuckoo clocks, an impeccable sense of neutrality, and skiing. Ah yes the skiing - Interlaken, Klosters, Gstaad.

For a country of such quiet refinement, the food is surprisingly (and deliciously) rustic and peasant-like. A chef’s salad leant heavily on the sausage.

When it comes to skiing, I would make the bastard lovechild of Bambi and Eddie the Eagle look like James Bond. But with age comes at least one wisdom – play to your strengths. As mine happen to include eating, drinking and basking, Switzerland in the summer agrees with me very well.

Serene, green, lush.

murten 276.JPGThere air is rich with an indefinable something...let’s for now call it quality. The word luxury is a redundancy here. Everything is solid. Everything clunks and clicks satisfyingly. The quietly super rich and the less quietly mega famous have lived and holidayed in Switzerland’s lake district (famous residents have included Charlie Chaplin, Audrey Hepburn and David Bowie) for many years, enjoying the clean pure air and gentle taxation system.

Swiss discretion is a certainly factor in attracting the stars, but perhaps less talked about is the country’s flair for hospitality - Switzerland virtually invented the concept of the Grand Hotel. I went to Murten on the lake known as Murtensee, (in French as Lac de Morat) to experience these heights of cosseting for myself.

I stayed at the Vieux Manoir Relais and Chateaux, a Grand Hotel in every sense of the concept. There is something deeply Victorian about this place.

The pristine gardens, with the green lawns flowing down to the tranquil lake, create such an immediate sense peace that you begin to understand why places like this were virtually on prescription for stressed-out bonnet-wearing mesdames. Suites are decked out in striped wallpaper and tables shielded by immaculate white parasols. You can imagine Henry James sitting on his balcony taking notes for his next beautifully observed novel.

This doesn’t mean the hotel is behind the times though. Every modern detail is taken care of, and there is a strikingly architectural ‘tree house’ that looks down onto the lake, which would make for a wildly romantic night or two. The lake itself, “as blue as the heavens it reflects”, is bobbed with white sailboats, and comes in at a very swimmable 20 degrees or more in the summer.

Murten itself is a beautifully preserved medieval town. The town sits on the language demarcation line, and its residents speak either French or German, and quite often both. Lying on the southern side of the lake, Murten forms a gateway into French-speaking Switzerland. Before exploring the town, first climb to the top of the ramparts and walk the walls for a birds-eye view of what awaits you below. As far as the eye can see, there are private gardens all carefully tended by the owners and at this time of year positively buxom with fruit and flowers.

murten 364.JPGThere is definitely something of the fairytale about Murten. Basically comprising three streets, the old town layout, including heavily fortified walls, meant it could be protected from incursions by among others, the Savoys, the Burgundys, and any other deeply old European name you care to cast about.

The main street, Hauptgasse, is a major attraction of Murten , running through the centre of the old quarter. It leads to the Bernegate, which contains one of the oldest clock towers in the country, dating from 1712. Another sight to note is the town’s oldest hotel, Hotel Adler, where Casanova cavorted with local flaxen-haired beauties and Goethe pondered Romanticism.

When you’ve had your fill of the picturesque (and the gorgeous swoop of the mountains beyond), it is time to explore the local culture. Viniculture to be precise. Swiss wine is not well-known abroad, even though it is produced in similar climate to areas of Germany or France. This is due to the fact vineyards, which are heavily dominated by Chasselas and Pinot Noir varieties, are tiny boutique operations that hand-produce much of their wine and domestic consumers account for pretty much every drop.

Winegrowing in the Lake Murten region of Vully has a history that stretches back more than a thousand years, kick-started by the monks who planted and cultivated vines here in past centuries.

murten 313.JPGI know this because Vully oenologist (or should that be dreamyologist?) Christian led me through the local history of wine-growing, culminating in a tasting. A cutie with as much wine as I can drink literally on tap – have I found the perfect man? Sadly, he is already spoken for. But the dessert wine alone is worth a trip to the slopes of Mont Vully.

Back at the hotel I got to sample Swiss cuisine. For a country of such quiet refinement, the food is surprisingly (and deliciously) rustic and peasant-like. A chef’s salad leant heavily on the sausage.

A main course of veal cheek came with the bedrock of Ticinese cuisine – polenta. Gourmet, extra-gourmet and beyond, this stuff cherrypicks elements of its European neighbours (the German fondness for serious breads and pastries, the French way with interesting bits of meats, everyone’s overwhelming interest in cheese. Ah the cheese.) and gilds it with its own ineffable Swissness.

Perfection does not come cheap. It helps if you have cavernous pockets. The deep, deep luxury of the Vieux Manoir is a rare treat, something I’d recommend for a honeymoon or special anniversary (yes, you can hear the clang of a massive hint being dropped). But there are more affordable options. The Fribourg and Three Lakes area is wonderful for cycling, hiking and sailing, and last-minute offers for local inns and hotels can be found on www.fribourgregion.ch.

Now if only I could persuade my doctor to prescribe me a little bit of Swiss medicine every year. Pass me my bonnet; I feel an attack of the vapours coming on.


“SWISS Taste of Switzerland” is the name SWISS has given to its innovative culinary concept that showcases the cooking and specialities of the country’s various regions. Each feature sees a top Swiss chef from a particular canton develop specialities from their region (with accompanying wines), which are then served on board for a three-month period. The concept has proved highly popular with passengers, and has also earned the Mercury Award, the inflight catering sector’s highest accolade, for its innovative culinary approach.

SWISS operates 35 daily flights from London Heathrow, London City, Birmingham International, Manchester and Dublin to Switzerland and, via its hubs to the world.

 Fares start from £89 return, including all airport taxes.

For reservations call 0845 601 0956 or visit www.swiss.com/uk

Food lovers can also visit:

Les Herbettes en fête, Charmey (www.herbettesenfete.ch)

• Châtel-St-Denis market on the last Saturday afternoon in June (www.lespaccots.ch)

• La Nuit des Saveurs, Morat

• La Fête des vendanges (wine harvest festival), Praz and Cheyres

• In autumn, Bénichon, the centuries-old harvest festival throughout the canton, is a celebratory meal that lasts for at least six hours. The menu includes cuchaule (saffron-infused bread), moutarde de bénichon, cabbage soup, ham hock, leg of lamb served with Botzi pears, meringues, bricelets, pear molasses tart and Gruyère double cream. Dates vary.

Salon des Goûts et Terroirs, Bulle (www.gouts-et-terroirs.ch )

•Chocolate fanatics will want to visit Maison Cailler, www.cailler.ch or ride on the chocolate train, which runs once a week from Montreux, on the Swiss Riviera, via Gruyères to Broc, where travellers can visit the Cailler-Nestlé chocolate factory and the Maison du Gruyère. www.mob.ch

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