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Photo by David Cogswell
Every new place has its little surprises, things you never imagined would be there, things that never entered your mind when you thought of the place before you had ever been there.
With Gstaad it was the flowers. The central commercial strip of the Swiss mountain resort village was lined with quaint buildings in natural wood color or linen white with chocolate brown trim, and the shops and restaurants seemed to be in competition for the most extravagant, overflowing troughs of brilliantly colored flowers along their windows and balcony ledges. The local florist must do exceedingly well.
You could not fail to notice the raging battle of the flower boxes if you walked down the strip as I did with my group of visitors from America. We were in Gstaad as part of the Study Trip of Switzerland put together by Switzerland Tourism in partnership with EuropeToo, one of the brands of the Isramworld Portfolio of Brands.
A mountain resort was one of five essential components of an introductory tour of Switzerland for travel agents, as conceived by Pascal Prinz, account manager of trade relations of Switzerland Tourism.
The other essential components were: a city experience, a scenic train ride, a lake cruise and a diversity of language regions. On the trip from Zurich to Gstaad we also got in the scenic train trip.
Most of our travel on the trip, other than walking, was either via the electric city trams or intercity trains. The Swiss national rail system is clean, luxurious, well managed and comprehensive. The day we traveled from Zurich to the mountains and Gstaad, we took a train trip in three segments.
First was Zurich to Bern, about an hour, then to Zweisimmen, about an hour and 20 minutes, and from there to Schönried, the station for Gstaad, another half hour ride
All of the train trips through the picturesque Swiss countryside were richly scenic, but on the last segment we rode on the GoldenPass Scenic train. It was the full-blown scenic rail experience with small windows in the roof of the car as well as big picture windows on the side for observing the full panorama of the mountain landscape.
The Swiss countryside seen from a moving train car was heartbreakingly beautiful, with broad swaths of bright green grass alternating with dense forests on sweeping slopes, farms with grazing cows and horses, crystalline mountain streams and rivers, and off in the distance as a backdrop to the green hills nearby, in the blue of the horizon, the craggy peaks of the Alps, draped with snow high above the timberline.
No photograph can begin to capture the sensory experience of being surrounded by those mountain landscapes. After many frustrating attempts, I gave up and settled into trying to absorb the images deeply and retain the experience in my memory bank. It worked pretty well because I can now draw the images to mind vividly as I recall the trip.
When we arrived at our final stop we were picked up at the train station by Andreas and Claudia of Gstaad Tourism. They took us in a van to get checked into the Arc-en-ciel, a cozy mountain resort surrounded by mountains.
We took a cable car up to the top of Mount Rellerli where we had hot chocolate at a rooftop restaurant with thick plexiglass window barriers blocking the wind, so that it was warm in the sun even though the tables are in the open air.
From there we walked to a picnic area and Andreas and Claudia pulled out the fondue gear and showed us how to set it up to melt the cheese and settle in for a fondue feast. Surprisingly it was much warmer and less windy on the top of Rellerli than it had been in the village below. We all ended up peeling our layers until we were almost in summer attire.
We rode a sort of toy toboggan with little cars that zipped down a slick, winding aluminum, taking our turns among a crowd of eager, noisy school kids. Then we were offered the choice between riding the cable car back down to the bottom or Rellerli, or to ride some fat-wheeled scooters down winding pathways to the bottom. I chose the latter, and it was an adventure, not without risk of wiping out. But where is the thrill of adventure without some risk?
Gstaad is a village of 7,000 people, as well as 7,000 cows. It's one of the most popular resort areas in Switzerland. After a big dinner in the Arc-en-ciel restaurant, I turned in early and had the best sleep I can remember. The mountain air was rejuvenating, rich and fresh. The next morning, as we gathered in the lobby of the hotel regrettably to leave for our next destination, everyone looked a good five years younger than they had looked the day before. Such is the vitality of the mountain air.
David Cogswell is executive editor covering tours and packages, Africa and the Middle East.
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