I fell in love with Switzerland in the 1980s and 90s, when the Alps became a favourite backdrop for Bollywood, and I was an impressionable young film fan. The image of actresses in chiffon saris frolicking in the high Alpine meadows stuck in my memory, and made me eager to go.
I got my chance in the mid-90s, as a budding investor assigned to manage a fund based in Zurich. Since then, my job has taken me to more than 70 countries, so people often ask me my favourite. It’s still Switzerland, which grows on me with each visit, thanks in a phrase to the Swiss sense of time, which is exacting, not nervous or disconnected.
If holidays are a break from the familiar, the Swiss countryside in summer is for me the perfect time and place. It is the antithesis of chaotic India where I grew up, and hurried New York where I now live. The world’s richest country after Luxembourg, Switzerland wears wealth with a grace that makes Manhattan seem even more agitated. Its mountains are as spectacular as any in India, where the hardships multiply with the altitude. In Switzerland, on a recent drive up to the Gothard Pass, a guide told me no ‘real difficulties’ in the mountains, unless you count the variable weather.
The Swiss are aware that other Europeans see them as dull folk who sat out the great wars, leaving themselves without a history to tell. But a holiday outside history is a spiritual opportunity. The Alps cross Europe, but only Switzerland enjoys them without the trenches and mental scars left by World Wars. And don’t be fooled; Switzerland is ready to defend itself, with mandatory military service and enough nuclear shelters to accommodate its entire population.
Located in the heart of Europe, Switzerland is like three nations rolled into one: German around Zurich, French around Geneva, and Italian around Lugano. The Bahnhofstrasse gives way to the Piazza Riforma, where the feel of the houses and streets grows less orderly, more random, more like Italy than Germany. Unlike, say New Zealand, where the stark mountains can make you feel lonely and isolated, Switzerland manages to feel removed and central at the same time. No country is better positioned as a base for exploring Europe. Cities like Geneva or Lucerne can be chock-full of tourist buses, including buses full of Indians visiting old Bollywood film locales. Yet no matter where you are, the mountains are close. And a nation of outdoorsy types is geared up to get you there fast.
I prefer summer largely because I am a hiker and avid runner (but don’t ski.) Some of my favourite hotels are a short drive from major airports yet nestled in beautiful trail systems. The Park Hotel Vitznau on Lake Lucerne offers quick access to fabled Rigi Mountain. The Alpina Gstaad is nestled in the most luxurious ‘village’ I have ever visited, and it is laced with trails. Both hotels are quintessentially Swiss, with modern innovation wrapped in traditional structures. A recent renovation of the Vitznau added stark quite white interiors while retaining the original stonework and turrets, which date back to 1903.
Swiss summer lacks the high season glam of Cannes or Venice, but hosts a multitude of great festivals, including the Montreux Jazz Festival in July. The real summer draw is the outdoors, and the underrated cuisine, a fusion of French, Italian and German influences that has produced 122 Michelin- starred restaurants.
On a late 90s trip to Zurich, I stumbled on Hitl, the oldest vegetarian restaurant in the world. Far from a tourist trap selling history with bad food on the side, Hitl offers excellent Thai curry and Swiss yoghurts alongside vadas, samosas, papadum and other Indian fare, delivered with ultra-modern service. I had never before seen digital devices that instantly transmit orders from waiters to the chef.
In Switzerland, innovation is no enemy of tradition, or discretion. One of my first Zurich clients was a billionaire who rode around in a black sedan that was unremarkable on the outside, a customised marvel of luxury and technology inside.
The only visible sign of wealth was the license plate. Switzerland bans vanity plates but drivers can inherit or sell their numbers, which have become a status symbol. Locals could read the billionaire’s plate and know instantly that the numbers and letters date to an era when cars were a rare luxury. If money talks and wealth whispers, Swiss wealth just winks.
The country’s reputation never quite recovered from a shot thrown by novelist Graham Greene in The Third Man. His lead character contrasts the than any European country of a roughly comparable population. And it has done so in industries from pharmaceuticals to foods, not just the one for which it is best known: banking. The Banking District, a popular Swiss TV mini-series that I recently binge-watched, captures well the paradox of its private banks, which are still widely seen as secretive havens for stolen fortunes, yet are beloved by clients for their impeccable service. An Indian friend, who recently closed his Swiss bank account because merely having one was enough to attract official scrutiny, says he will miss it dearly. It was an oasis of effortless competence, where clients were never asked so much as to share an elevator.
Outside banks, Switzerland is a lot more open than its buttoned-up reputation. Tourists feel welcome in a straightforward way, not fawned on. Few European countries accept more immigrants per capita. Buying property is tougher: when I tried in Zurich a decade ago, I was deterred by rules that steer foreign buyers to designated resort areas, but that did not stop an acquaintance of mine, the fruits of Italian culture during 30 years of terror under the Borgias – Michelango and Da Vinci – to Switzerland’s during 500 years of peace, when it invented the cuckoo clock.
Indeed Switzerland has no Uffizi gallery, few artists celebrated enough to populate one, and the cuckoo clock business is real. Cities and towns teem with shops selling them along with other wooden crafts. Teddy’s Souvenir Shop is the go-to location in Zurich and feels so quintessentially Swiss. It has been owned by the same family for generations and retains its authenticity as a small, friendly neighbourhood store.
But outsiders who trivialise Swiss culture tend to overlook how well they run things. Compared to Sweden and other popular Scandinavian economic models, Switzerland delivers equally comprehensive social services with lighter taxes and regulation. Its people are among the happiest in the world, and its light-touch government allows small companies and 26 distinct cantons to thrive.
Travelling from Zurich to Geneva recently, I was stuck by how many iconic Swiss goods originate in a single canton – Swiss Army knives from Schwyz, watches from Bern, St Bernard puppies from Valais and chocolates from Fribourg. Yet Switzerland has also built far more globally competitive companies Egyptian billionaire Samih Sawirif. He got special government permissions to resuscitate the Alpine ski village of Andermatt. On a recent visit there, I arrived at the ultra-luxe Chedi hotel famished and headed to its main ‘multicuisine’ restaurant, which always sounds like code for ‘bland international buffet’. Instead I got one of the best papaya salads and paneer masalas I have ever eaten.
The more I go back to Switzerland, the more it surprises me. In 2015, at the Victoria-Jungfrau Grand Hotel in beautiful Interlaken, I came upon a two-room suite dedicated to film director Yash Chopra. Chopra often stayed here while filming, and inaugurated his namesake suite shortly before his death in 2011. It is decorated in a ‘Bollywood style’ with elephant figurines, an embroidered red bedspread, heavy teak floors and posters from Chopra classics like Veer-Zaara. The window looks out on the slopes of the Jungfrau, a favourite Chopra film site.
This is the Switzerland I am drawn to, capable of exquisitely refined luxury but with room for a sense of humour, cuckoo clocks and Bollywood. Despite their fabulous wealth, the signature Swiss style is understated, deeply respectful of tradition, always aware of the clock but never racing it. That is why I love to travel on Swiss time, and keep going back.
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