2016-10-11 14:00:15
Personal Journeys: A Grand Tour of Switzerland, Reluctant Son in Tow

Most Sunday mornings, throughout my childhood near Geneva, my father would drive me to a spot we had never been before. Switzerland occupies about 16,000 square miles. Squeezed between France, Italy, Liechtenstein, Austria and Germany, it is divided into 26 cantons, each influenced by the country it is closest to. All are both fiercely independent and utterly loyal to the Swiss confederation. We explored much of the region where we lived, and that forged a nomadic spirit that has stayed with me.

After high school, I moved to New York, where I’ve lived for the last 30 years. My father died in 2003; three weeks later, my son, Sébastien, was born. I began to long for the stunning Alpine landscapes of my youth. Whenever possible, we traveled back to my mother’s house in Genthod, near Geneva, but I yearned to share more with Sébastien as he grew.

A dual citizen who spoke French at home, Sébastien, now 12, was curious about Switzerland. (He had been switching to English in our conversations, perhaps out of a growing preteen defiance.) So before full-fledged adolescence claimed him, I decided to take him around the country last summer.

The plan was to choose lesser-known spots to evade the August crowds and explore cantons where each national language — French, Italian, German and Romansh — was spoken and celebrated.

Going by train, I thought, would give us a chance to focus on each other and see the countryside at its most tranquil. Halfway through our journey, though, I wondered if we would make it to the end.

“I’m bored to death,” said a breathless Sébastien as we hiked down through the steep terraced vineyards of Lavaux, between Lausanne and Vevey.

Really? Below us, an undulating flow of greenery cascaded toward a perfectly still lake. On the other side, France was shrouded in sheer morning fog, pierced only by the colossal range of the Alps.

Vineyards have existed on these slopes since Roman times, but monks planted most of the 2,400 acres on stone-walled terraces during the 11th century. In 2007, the region’s terraced vineyards, deemed a “cultural landscape,” became a Unesco World Heritage site.

But my son was furious. In order to catch the early train from Geneva to Vevey, I woke him, a risky endeavor. Somehow I had gotten him to leave his computer behind — no small feat. He puffed and grumbled until, seated at the Auberge de l’Onde, in the village of St.-Saphorin, I asked if he wanted to taste the wine. He perked up and we sipped the fruity, perky local chasselas. But it was the perch filets meunière that elicited the first smile of the day.

I had high hopes for our next stop, Fribourg, a town founded in 1157 on a sandstone cliff, with a quirky bilingual identity, a Jean Tinguely/Niki de Saint Phalle gallery and a large student population. Alas, the gallery was closed and Sébastien was checked out. He plunged into his phone, and I left our hotel alone.

On the cobblestone square, I was surprised to find several hundred soldiers in fatigues. Barely older than my son, these new recruits had just started their first mandatory stint in the Swiss Army and were listening to a speech on terrorism. It was reassuring to hear that Switzerland didn’t take its peace for granted (its last war was in 1847).

“I’ll serve in Switzerland if they have a computer department,” Sébastien said at dinner, thrusting his long fork into the bubbly moitié-moitié fondue (half Gruyère, half Vacherin). I regaled him with memories of my father, who would don his uniform, pick up the rifle every soldier stored at home and head to the annual training course.

The fastest way from Fribourg to Locarno, and its home canton of Ticino, actually led us through Italy. At the stop in Domodossola, 10 cars’ worth of travelers tried without success to squeeze into the rickety two-car train to Locarno. “Benvenuto in Italia!” I said, finally seated in a longer train that replaced the first.

“You speak Italian?” Sébastien asked.

“Sì,” I said, realizing he knew nothing of my years of study.

Two hours later, we landed in Locarno, with its palm trees and bougainvillea. At lunch, I showed off, babbling with the restaurant owner to persuade him to make a pasta sampler for my hungry tween.

“How do you say, ‘cool’?” Sébastien asked.

Our next destination was Swissminiatur, a park in Melide, on Lake Lugano (one of over 130 lakes in Ticino), that houses miniature models of Swiss monuments. We hopped on two more trains for a few minutes each to get there. As a youngster, I had taken the precision of the train system for granted, but now with a tight schedule, I was grateful.

“That’s attention to detail,” said Sébastien, admiring the model of Geneva’s St. Pierre Cathedral.

“Andiamo al lido! Let’s go to the beach,” I said on our way out. It turned out to be more a lawn than a beach, but soon we were bobbing along in the cool water.

For centuries, artists and writers have lauded the beauty of the Swiss lakes. “The mirror where the stars and mountains view / the stillness of their aspect in each trace,” Lord Byron wrote. To me, the opaline ripples hold memories of my father, who sailed competitively, beating Ted Turner at the 5.5 meter 1972 world championship. On Sunday nights, he would bring home twisted, drenched spinnakers to hang-dry all over the house, forming silky red or blue labyrinths.

That night in nearby Morcote, the skies opened, and we admired the running of the waiters, umbrella in one hand and steaming pasta dish in the other.

We wouldn’t see the sun until more than a whole day later, in Sils-Maria in the canton of Graubünden, where Romansh, a descendant of Latin, is spoken. And it was on the way there, crawling under steady rain, that Sébastien asked if he could go home.

Too many trains and the steady pull of his “internet friends” had worn him down. As I pointed to one vista after another, he barely looked up from his phone. Had I been more sensitive to the beauty of the landscapes at age 12? Probably not. I pondered if we should abort the trip, but decided to stick with it.

The next day, I woke up to the clicks of a camera. “Trying the panorama,” he said, pointing his phone out the window. We were staying at the Hotel Waldhaus Sils-Maria, a stately white chateau with green shutters, built in 1908 and still owned by the same family. The trick was to capture the steely gray Lake Sils, Lake Silvaplana and the rocky Piz Corvatsch mountain in the same frame.

Downstairs, the breakfast buffet was a study in satisfying Swiss cuisine: mountain cheese, redolent of summer grass; bündnerfleisch (paper-thin air-dried beef); and even a honeycomb the size of a road map.

“It’s the Grand Budapest Hotel,” Sébastien said. It seemed he was in a better mood.

The serious hikers had already left, but Werner Zinsli, a local guide, was waiting.

“Allegra!” he said in Romansh, and as we hiked toward the 6,500-foot-high Val Fex, he recounted the struggle to keep this local language alive.

The faint chime of cowbells accompanied our steps. A light wind breathed through immense larch trees. This was the ideal Alpine landscape — silvery river below, ice tongues and patches of snow above — that inspired Nietzsche, who summered in the area.

“See Maienfeld on the other side?” said Mr. Zinsli to Sébastien. “That’s the village that inspired the author of ‘Heidi’.”

After two hours, we refueled with rösti and local bratwurst served outside Hotel Fex on a red-and-white-checkered tablecloth.

“What’s going on here?” asked Sébastien a day later, as we rolled our bags through the village of Appenzell, a mere 12 miles from Austria. Couples of all ages, some in lederhosen and traditional dresses, danced joyously to the sound of accordions, trumpets and string instruments. Farther away, we heard a choir’s wrenching yodels, traditional wordless songs alternating between falsetto and chest voice.

Between the geraniums in the windows, the immaculately painted facades and the costumes, we seemed to have stumbled onto a theater set. “It’s a Dr. Seuss scene,” Sébastien said.

But we found Appenzell and its folk music festival endearing. At dinner we munched on macaroni with creamy Appenzeller cheese at Café-Hotel Appenzell, on the wide Landsgemeindeplatz, the village square where inhabitants come together on the last Sunday of April to vote; we discussed direct democracy and how the canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden was the last of the 26 cantons to grant women the right to vote on canton-related issues in 1991.

It seemed fitting to end with the world’s steepest cogwheel railway up Mount Pilatus near Lucerne. We heard marmots cry on the way up, and at dusk we encountered our first ibex, the mountain goat that haunted the folktales of my childhood. “Cool,” Sébastien said.

I never again brought up his desire to get home early, and he didn’t, either. I had pretended to be strong and steadfast. And that was all he needed.

A Swiss Travel Pass (swisstravelsystem.com) provides access to all rail, boat and bus travel, as well as 50 percent off most mountain excursions. The price depends on the number of consecutive travel days, and the family card can be added free if one parent purchases one adult Swiss Travel Pass. For example, for eight days, the adult fare is $388 in second class; $621 in first.

Children and adults will enjoy strolling through Swissminiatur (Via Cantonale, Melide; 41-91-640-10-60; swissminiatur.ch/en) whether they recognize the monuments or not.

We enjoyed cooling off at the Lido di Melide (Via alla Bola 10, Melide; 41-79-548-73-43; melide.ch), an enclosed resort area with a cafe and playground.

The Engadin region (engadin.stmoritz.ch) has many trails for hikers of all levels. Our two-hour walk in the Fex Valley was a nice introduction.

Most travelers hop to the summit of Mount Pilatus (pilatus.ch) on the cogwheel train (May to November) or cable car, and come back down. But spending the night at 7,000 feet brought me my very first ibex sighting.

Hôtel Au Sauvage (Planche-Supérieure 12, Fribourg; 41-26-347-30-60; hotel-sauvage.ch) is a family owned boutique hotel set in the lower part of the old town, steps from the bucolic River Sarine. Doubles start at 240 Swiss francs, or about $247.

Albergo della Posta (Piazza Grande, Morcote; 41-91-996-11-27;hotelmorcote.com/en) is a simple inn with a superb terrace hanging over Lake Lugano. Doubles start at 110 francs.

We loved the Waldhaus Hotel Sils-Maria (Via da Fex 3, Sils-Maria; 41-81-838-51-00; waldhaus-sils.ch/en), for its stunning views, but also its old-style family run hospitality. Doubles start at 480 francs.

There’s probably no better seat to watch the historic annual voting session in April on the Landsgemeindeplatz than the flowery Cafe-Hotel Appenzell (Hauptgasse 37, Appenzell; 41-71-788-15-15; hotel-appenzell.ch) where doubles start at 250 francs.

It’s worth spending the night at Hotel Pilatus-Kulm (Schlossweg 1, Kriens; 41-41-329-11-11; pilatus.ch/en/hotel-pilatus-kulm) for the sunset and to catch a sighting of ibex or marmots out in the meadows. Doubles from 170 francs.

Lunch for two at the brasserie at L’Auberge de l’Onde (Chemin Neuf, St.-Saphorin; 41-21-925-49-00; aubergedelonde.ch/en) starts at 60 francs.

We had trouble finishing the “small” portion of the moitié-moitié fondue (25 francs) at Café du Midi (Rue de Romont, 25; 41-26-322-31-33; lemidi.ch).

Lunch served outside in the middle of the Fex Valley at Hotel Restaurant Fex (Fexerstrasse 73, Fex/Sils; 41-81-832-60-00;hotelfex.ch) was a highlight. Lunch for two from 42 francs.

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