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Holidays: Swiss surprises.

Byline: PAUL COLE Travel Editor

THE Swiss invaded Birmingham last week. But because they're unfailingly polite and courteous, you may not have noticed. Getting them to blow their own trumpet -or indeed alpenhorn -is notoriously tough. Unlike those pesky Austrian kids from The Sound Of Music, they just hate to sing their own praises.

So getting representatives from all the various cantons and cities together in Birmingham's Hyatt Regency hotel for an evening must have been, well, a mountainous achievement.

They know that they already have some of the world's most stunning scenery. They have so many ski resorts that they've lost count. They have more varieties of wine than any other nation.

They have art, architecture and culture on tap. Cable cars, cog railways and mountain-top restaurants are de rigueur. Hell, they even have chocolates and cuckoo clocks.

But we already knew all that. So what's new for 2004? Not that they need to bother with so much going for them.

The answer may surprise you. Here's just a taster of what the Swiss have quietly been up to.

GET HIGH IN LUCERNE: It wasalready renowned as the base for stomach-churning trips to the top of Pilatus, Rigi, Titlis and the Jungfrau, and now it's gone one step further. They've got... a Zeppelin.

The giant airship cruises high above Lake Lucerne and the surrounding mountains with 40-minute trips from 380 Swiss francs (pounds 169).

If you really want to push out the boat, pay 999 Swiss francs (pounds 445) for an exclusive two-hour trip for just 10 guests, with airborne aperitifs and champagne, plus a signed commemorative photo.

Visit website www.skycruise.ch for more info, a glance through the webcam and the chance to try flying it for yourself by downloading a flight simulator.

GO BLIND IN ZURICH: Dine atthe Blinde Kuh (it literally translates as Blind Cow) restaurant in pitch-black darkness.

You can't see a thing, all the waiters are blind, and the water level in your glass can be determined only on a weighing scale, where the needle can be felt.

The brainchild of blind minister Joerg Spielman, it's the hottest meal ticket in town, despite the fact that customers pay good money to eat food they cannot see.

The trendy eaterie was initially set up as a platform to highlight blind awareness but soon caught on with discerning diners who, deprived of sight, enjoyed greater senses of taste and smell.

There are three main courses, each served on a different kind of plate. The waiters can tell the plates apart by feeling them. And to make sure no light leaks into the dining room, food is passed from the kitchen through a special trap door.

BE COWED IN VALAIS: Crowdsflock to the southernmost canton each year to watch mountain cattle battle for the 'Queen Of Queens' title in a bovine version of the FA Cup.

Put a couple of these cows together and they'll fight, locking horns like stags. So that's what the villagers do, pitting the beasts against each other in local heats leading to a regional final. Cows are not allowed to dictate their own rules for combat, I was solemnly told. Contests are strictly controlled and under veterinary supervision. Nobody gets hurt. Honest.

This is big business out in the sticks, with huge crowds gathering in arenas for the bull fights where the bulls always win. Videos of the finals even include commentary and replays!

GET STONED IN INTERLAKEN: The gentle tourist town of Interlaken is now home to Stonehenge. Oh, and yes, the great pyramid of Cheops, a Mayan temple and Peruvian pictograms.

That's not to mention ancient Indian mysteries, dolls that look like astronauts, the Nautilus submarine and a whole lot more in the Mystery Park -a themed centre devoted to the truth being out there.

Founded by, among others, Chariots Of The Gods author Erich von Daniken, it's a year-round attraction based on mysteries inspired by the belief that aliens walked Earth before mankind. It's not what you might expect from Switzerland. But, then again, that's the trouble with the modest Swiss.

They don't want to appear pushy or preachy about their hidden gems. That would be impolite.

TRAVEL FILE

For more info, visit these websites

ZEPPELIN: www.skycruise.ch

BLIND COW: www.zuerich.com

MAD COWS: www.valaistourisme.ch

MYSTERY PARK: www.mysterypark.ch

CAPTION(S):

UP AND AWAY... get a bird's-eye view of Lake Lucerne on a 40-minute airship cruise; GETTING TO GRIPS... cows fight to be Queen of Queens in Valais
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Sunday Mercury (Birmingham, England)
Date:Sep 21, 2003
Words:755
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