Escapism at Therme Vals ...

Vals is at the end of the road from Ilanz - which navigates the slender Valser Tal and used to take 8 hours by horse and carriage. A quaint and virtually untouched mountain village, it has none of the glitz and glam of the more fashionable resorts like Zermatt or St Moritz. It has retained character and is home to scant restaurants and cafes; has a beautiful square where Tim and I befriend an alsation who enjoyed chasing ice balls; and yet is the location of one of Switzerland's most famous architectural gems: Therme Vals.

Designed by the award-winning Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, the mineral baths have an almost monastic style. The walls are high without interruption - ho hooks or railings - and constructed in Valser Quartzite, which is quarried locally and contributes to the flourishing local economy (tourism, water and stone). The stone is a melange of the most wonderful shades of dusky grey and muted purple. It creates a delicate contrast against the pale green water, which is illuminated from beneath.

With its high ceilings and narrow chambers - each hosting a different type of thermal pool - Therme Vals has magnificent acoustics, where sounds echo and create a chiming like bells from afar. There are none of the comforts that one may expect of modern-day 'wellness' like massage jets or seats in the pool. The hotel rooms named 'Temporaries', renovated by Peter Zumthor, are along a similar theme: stripped to the bare bones in an elegant black-and-white colour scheme that is like a cave for the twenty-first century.

There is no real distinction between the interior and the snowy winter wonderland outside, where the only punctuations in the white carpet are the frost pine trees. There is no TV, only a CD player and a collection of relaxing, classical CDs. It is not a place you should stay if you have any demons you are unwilling to cosy up with, for the effect of the room is quite like that of an Ashram. For me as a writer, however, it is heavenly. Breakfast in the hotel's Red Restaurant is superb with a great selection of local breads, cheeses and meats, as is dinner in Restaurant Chessi, where they serve hearty, traditional and regional meals.

During the other night of our visit, Tim and I dine in the Restaurant Edelweiss in the village, which is a cosy Stube with wood panelling and tasty food. One highlight of the weekend is a winter hike up past the valley lift station and beyond to the gorge - I love being out on foot in the snow; Tim would have preferred the ski lift to be open! I recommend Vals to those who just want to escape from it all for a couple of days, or those interested in architecture. It is a true wonder of Switzerland to which I cannot do justice in a blog post.

The Capital of Christmas ...

If ever there was a time to visit Strasbourg, that time is now. Until 31 December in the 'Capital of Christmas', 13 markets selling handicrafts, delectable biscuits and treats, and hot, festive drinks line the 15th-and 16th-century streets. The market started in 1570 - and needless to say has been perfected over the centuries. Visitors cluster, their mittened hands tightly clasped around steaming mugs of mulled wine. Above, creative window displays of polar bears, gingerbread men or intertwined Christmas vines are illuminated by understated lights.

At the weekend when Tim and I visited, I was in awe of the narrow, medieval buildings, of which the roofs extend to varying heights and slope at varying degrees. They are a spectacle best admired from the top of the Notre-Dame Cathedral. This might require a 332-step climb to a height of 66 metres, but the rewards are worth it. In the distance the modern, glass buildings of the European Parliament stand out in an almost space-age fashion against the sienna rooftops around. We got closer during a boat trip, which took us around the so-called 'island' where the city centre is and then to the outskirts.

Strasbourg is much bigger than I imagined, and going by boat is a great way to see all the main sights - a headset gives you all the important names and dates of buildings. One particularly beautiful corner is La Petite France, a cluster of fourteenth century buildings tucked amongst five branches of the River Ill. It was enchanting to see the remaining five towers of the city walls, and the covered bridges beneath. These were spectacularly illuminated at nighttime.

We ate in a traditional beer house where I enjoyed salmon fillet on a bed of Sauerkraut, doused in a cream sauce. We spent lunchtimes at the market, eating grilled baguettes with gooey toppings; and we ate far too many roasted almonds, marshmallow kisses and chocolate. Patisserie Christian in the centre is a spot not to miss - we treated ourselves to golf-ball sized truffles filled with butter-cream like chocolate.. mmm... ( I really enjoyed the opportunity to be immersed in French again - and sample their famous food. We did in fact little but eat and spent most of our budget on food - the French certainly know what they're doing when it comes to the edible in life. Then there was the mulled wine - oh the mulled wine ...

The Pearl of the Alps ...

I skied a red piste without panicking! That is an achievement made thanks to the heavenly snow conditions at Saas-Fee at the weekend. No ice to be seen, only fluffy, soft and grippy snow - the kind that sends a little flurry up behind your skies. I find it little surprise that Saas-Fee was named Best Swiss Ski Resort 2012. Everyone is so friendly - from the owner of the Feehof hotel where we stayed to the very helpful girl I rented my ski equipment from at Cesar Alpin Sport.

If I have a gripe it is the claustrophobia I experienced in the 30-person gondola that carried guests to the Allalin ski area, situated between glaciers at an altitude of 3,500 metres above sea level. I suppose a lengthy gondola ride cannot be avoided when climbing to such an altitude, and the views at the top - after stepping out of the world's highest underground funicular (Metro Alpin) - were well worth it. We could see to Switzerland's highest mountain The Dom (4545m) and beyond the marshmallow-like peaks, down to Italy.

There were all kinds of people on the pistes - ski acrobats diving off jumps, ski clubs practising slalom, kids learning with their parents and the odd few beginners. The drag lift queues were sometimes lengthy - and barely resembled a queue - but I put this down to such a limited part of the ski area being open due to the early season.

Besides skiing, we made a trip into the world-s largest ice grotto - at the end of a 70m tunnel into the glacier. Inside, it looked all smooth and wet, almost like peering into a clear plastic bouncy castle, and was rougher where new ice crystals had formed. In the evening, we were ready to eat by 6 p.m and had the most divine pizzas at Don Ciccio - mine was dotted with aubergine, artichoke and courgette and layered in really creamy cheese. Of course, Tim and I had a tiramisu each for dessert - it was the creamiest one I've ever tasted.

The Feehof rooms were cosy, simple and practical - very centrally located, though this was a problem at night when the apres-ski bar down the road was blaring out music. But oh to awaken to that bowl of 13 peaks over 4,000-metres high that give Saas-Fee it's nickname of Pearl of the Alps.. magical. It's a shame a completely unprepared SBB rolled into Visp train station on Sunday evening when we returned to Zurich to collect twice as many passengers as it had room for. People were standing up the stairs and in the aisles for an hour until Bern - and at the prices they charge? Pathetic!

Skyfall: What a way to celebrate 50 years ...

When we went to watch Skyfall this afternoon - a token of its popularity being that, even buying tickets two hours in advance, the only seats left were on the second row - the audience was filled with such a wide cross-section of society as I have never seen at a viewing before: couples, families, old, young.. And rightly so. For me, Skyfall was a perfect celebration of James Bond's 50 years. It had the terrifying baddy - in fact, could Javier Bardem possibly be the most terrifying Bond baddie in history? The blonde hair and watery blue eyes - so alien to his usual colouring - set him beside truly menacing baddies such as The Joker of Batman or Tom Hollander in Hanna.

It had the beautiful locations - and how nice to see such an emphasis on British spots. I particularly loved the closing scenes amidst the drama of Glen Coe. The cast were fantastic. I must say that I thought Daniel Craig was brilliant - even though I am a hardened Sean Connery fan! I enjoyed the quips in the script: M's bulldog, young upstart Q. Plenty of humour that kept the audience laughing - and shocks that left them aghast. Bond falling down a gorge at the beginning - could it really be? The plot line seemed less James Bond, however, and more British drama Spooks. I liked this take and found it more appealing than the violent, sex-filled action that normally graces Bond films. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful ...

Basel Herbstmesse

The dusky smell of roasting chestnuts. The muffled rowdiness of pop music. The haunting cries of "Are you ready to go faster?" on the loudspeaker. These are all elements that added to the atmosphere of Basel's Autumn Fair yesterday. Spread across several squares in the city on the bend of the Rhine, some of its most terrifying rides - think swings 50 feet above the ground - offer the most expansive views of the medieval rooftops and hazy hills of the Black Forest in the distance. For me though, rather than enjoying the view, these rides would have meant squeezing my eyes shut and thinking nice thoughts while waiting for the ride to end.

So we started with the Crazy Mouse - from the ground it looked like a gentle, children's rollercoaster (or for adults with a faint heart). In reality, it was awful! I have never felt so sick, so dizzy or so battered and bruised in my life. As the carriage whipped around corners, my arm banged against the metal safety bar to my right. As it spun like a storm in a tea cup, I felt my head was about to be ripped from my neck. In hindsight, I should have tried the huge pendulum ride that Tim dared to attempt - 'rhythmic and could send a baby to sleep' was his thought on this ride that made my stomach churn just watching it swing menacingly back and forth, propelling its passengers towards the ground and then sweeping it back up. Subsequently - and once our stomachs had settled - we enjoyed crepes with Nutella and watched the light ride over the river. That was enough exhilarating action for November's afternoon ...

Why I miss living in and love returning to England ...

Switzerland is a beautiful country, yet flying to the UK always puts a much bigger smile on my face. Landing in Manchester after a 7 a.m. flight might not be everyone's idea of fun, but the sight of the English countryside from above, of familiar shops that welcome you in the airport and of friendly and well-mannered people just cannot be beaten. Lunch in Danish bar Kro with Jo from university was delightful - and being back in the city that I detested when living there was lovely. It's inexplicable why, but I suppose that with a time limit, you can make the most of the bits you want to and ignore the rest.

Train to Malton and a wander around Pickering as twilight encroached upon the houses was the beginning of a proper weekend in the countryside. Darkness rendered Farndale's beauty latent when we arrived and we spent the evening acclimatising to the chill of the house - it makes you feel alive. And awakening on a Sunday morning to cloud and drizzle suggests only one thing: the ideal time to make a trip to the coast. Staithes and its quaint cottages that grip to the rocky basin in a huddle lose no beauty on a grey day - on the contrary, the silvers and steels enhance the crashing waves that rage onto the beach and present a lacy cloak, quickly gathering it back up and drifting back into the wash.

Brave surfers tried to catch the waves; exciting dogs chased flying seaweed and proudly dragged driftwood twice their size to their owners. To warm up? Crumpets with wensleydale followed by a cup of tea and a slice of elderflower and gooseberry cake - pure, English heaven. If Staithes is the tourist trap, Skinningrove along the coast is a land forgotten in time. Bleak terraced houses face the sea in a tight barricade and, as we curled as far as we could into our waterproofs and battled along the beach, we noticed remnants of the former industrial landscape, now committed to old photographs. With the return of the sun on Monday, we headed into the hills and climbed onto Rudland Rigg, admiring the vast, isolated terrain all around. I wonder if there is anywhere else quite like North Yorkshire on earth. We remembered we were in England when a fierce, black cloud appeared on the horizon and steadily bulged until it had gobbled up the scenery. Time for the pub, a warm fire and good,English food. The White Lion pub is used to withstanding the elements - it is a cosy spot on days like that.
The long weekend wasn't over before another cosy night in Farndale with the marvellous Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and another morning waking up to a colourful, autumnal view of the dale - all burnished gold and vivid green. Now, tell me that life anywhere else could be so good!

Swiss Indoors Basel

To experience a ball powering at 200 kph towards your face is quite a heartbeat-racing experience - and one that Tim and I experienced up close and personal at Swiss Indoors Basel. We enjoyed front-row seats on center court while watching Swiss men's No 2 Stanislas Wawrinka take on Nikolay Davydenko. Although the game was perhaps not as exhilarating as others, it was remarkable to see the speed of a live tennis match - and feel as if we were part of the action. The players seemed close enough to reach out and touch. I watched the speedy volleys in awe, enjoyed the buzz in the audience. The whole event was very glamorous with swish stalls set up in the corridors around the stadium. And what a chance to see of the world's best players in an intimate situation. An experience not to be missed ...

No sign of winter in Majorca ...

I am determined to arrive in Majorca open-minded, having read George Sand's damning and morose account of the winter she spent there. When our plane lands against what can only be described as an uninspiring sky, I worry that Madame Sand's criticisms were grounded in truth. The airport is chaotic - arrivals and departures blend into one - compared to the Swiss watch-esque precision of Zurich. It is a shock for me to be in a country where I don't understand the signposts, never mind the locals. Oh no, I didn't enjoy Spain last time I visited; I'm going to hate it again, I think to myself.

Driving out of Palma, the countryside looks barren and thirsty. It is dotted with ugly high-rises and intrusive touristy new builds. And yet, intermingled, are the most beautifully crafted windmills with arrow-like designs. Majorca has something. Tim's parents own a flat near Santa Ponsa (a resort along from Magaluf - the less said about that the better) and it is beautiful. Awaking with a Mediterranean view is good for the soul. From the balcony, the sea is a mere slip behind the lush, green oasis of the apartment complex, which is all terracotta and camouflaged. Bowling pin-shaped trees prick up and prod the soft cloudscape; two islands (Cabrera and Dragonera) peep up from behind the headland.

We visit three-year-old Port Adriano, now awash with slick yachts, and enjoy moonlit drinks beside the harbour one night and a delicious fish supper at La Terrazza the next. We swim in the sea off Cap Formentor - a peninsula that cuts in a jagged lump into an ocean of a thousand shades of blue that never seems to end. Here, there is a beautiful beach that is no more than a golden belt along the length of the bay, lined on one side with pine trees and encroached on the other by the Med. The sea feels fresher than a swimming pool and is so clear, I could gaze into it all day long. We drive back through the mountains along a windy road and admire steeped terraces of citrus fruit plantations and writhing olive trees.

One of the most picturesque resorts we visit is Port Andratx, popular with British holiday makers. It has a rounded bay with fishing nets against a backdrop of shiny yachts. There is a tapestry of terracotta dwellings on the thirsty hillsides and the usual array of tacky tourist shops. We stop at Tim's namesake bar! From there we drive to Saint Elm and lunch at El Pescadore, where the wind whips the table cloth. The sharp sea breeze soothes the mind as if carrying bedtime wishes. Fruit and salad here harbours more layers of flavour than any of the varieties I have sampled from supermarkets before. The colours are vivid - the fuschia-coloured flowers that dangle from windows and archways and the rich, orange soil. I feel healthy waking up every day for a swim in the pool, lounging in the sun with a book, and then swimming some more. Majorca's natural beauty might have been encroached upon by tourism, but it retains a beauty in the lifestyle you can enjoy there. George Sand, I have to disagree with you ...

Window to Zurich...

I am gazing over the edge of an infinity pool. Below, Lake Zurich winds into the distance in a sweep of turquoise with patches of dusky turquoise where the clouds have created shadows. Cow bells jingle in the air; I feel completely at one with the world. This is the Panorama Resort above Pfaeffikon in Canton Schwyz. The swimming pool - part of the Akari spa - is heavenly. Akari means 'light' and on every wall is a large window with panoramic views. Tim and I enjoy the Japan Harmony Bath during which we have a jasmine steam bath, a full body peeling and a whirlpool bath.

We dine in Restaurant Collina, where I enjoy the five-course summer menu consisting of delightful fresh and local ingredients, and we gaze at that ever-present panoramic view. There is a pleasant hum of happy chatter - other guests clearly, like us, completely relaxed after an afternoon in the spa. Our room is filled with the harmony of a Japanese garden with yellow walls and simplistic decor. The far wall is a window so the room becomes one with the view. Here we watch a storm sweeping towards us up the lake, gradually grasping the resort in its clutches, then disappearing as quickly as it came, leaving behind a rim of gold leaf on the hilltops.

We awake on Sunday to a swim, the warm water soothing our limbs against the chill morning air. After homemade Bircher Musli from the extensive spa buffet we head for our Kundalini yoga class - the instructor is terrifying and barks stern instructions at us in English: "Breathe through your nose!" "No fruits without roots!" "Stop looking at the clock!" This is yoga meets Basil Fawlty. We treat ourselves with Sunday morning brunch - homemade croissants, smoked salmon and a great selection of Swiss cheeses are just some of the tasty titbits on offer. Then the wicker sofas with fabric hoods that line the outdoor pool and peer over the view beckon and we sit curled up in our robes reading with the sun kissing our limbs and the breeze dusting our noses. So near to Zurich yet so far away...

Valleys of vineyards ...

As the train slides ever closer to Sierre in Canton Valais, the scenery looks ever less Swiss. Lush vineyards creep up the steep, parched valley slopes, which turn into a patchwork of sand and thirsty greenery. Tucked behind a shoulder and reached by a funicular is Crans-Montana - a sprawl of three villages connected by lavish holiday homes and high rises that should never have been allowed to be built. Tim and I are spending the week in Montana, in a pretty little flat owned by Tim's Godmother, and visiting his sister, brother-in-law and their adorable baby daughter.

I am first blown away by the view from the balcony: as evening sweeps its hazy cloak over the valley, the snowy mountain summits retreat into a lilac fog. Being in the mountains always feels right to me; just the sight of them is a much-needed reconnection with nature and reality. We are awoken early on Saturday by little Charlotte, but her charming smiles and hilarious antics make up for it. Having just learnt to walk, she shows off swaying from side to side like a little drunk. She grabs my walking poles and pretends to Nordic walk! She is very cute.

We spend Saturday in the mountains, doing a walk from Cry d'Er. After almost bathing in sun cream - I learned that you need a shot glass of the stuff for each limb - we head into the sweltering heat. The mountainous backdrop - which features the Matterhorn, Weisshorn and Mont Blanc among others - is startling against the clear sky. Sweaty after the walk, we refresh with ice creams and a swim in a nearby lake. I quickly exit after reeds wrap themselves around my legs! Sunday brings more divine weather and we drive to Leukerbad, famous for its thermal baths. This might sound like a strange choice in 34-degree heat - however, the natural thermal waters with their high mineral content are just what are hiking-tired limbs need. I walk again and again around the Kneipp baths - where you walk through really hot water and then freezing water. It's supposed to stimulate circulation and it feels really good. What a wonderful way to end the weekend and feel relaxed to return to work.

Soaring summits in Kandersteg ...

It is a fine art to imagine mountain views when all before you is a wall of impenetrable grey. With images from the postcards in our minds, Tim and I took the cable car from Kandersteg in Canton Bern to the Oeschinensee. We caught glimpses of the famed turquoise surface of the lake beneath the cloud - sadly none of the sheer, craggy summits that rise and fall to sharpened points high above it. After climbing up and up through woodland, we reached the high path to the Oberbaergli Hut. Below us were steep drops - lucky I couldn't see them!

The lack of views encouraged me to pay more attention to the carpet of pinks, purples and yellows. Dainty alpine flowers dappled the grass - a spider was sitting on a large daisy, like a thumbnail from Flower Fairies. Cow bells jangled in the air around the hut; two beautiful border collies played with each other. By the time we dropped again to the lake, the cloud was beginning to clear and we saw those postcard views! Before taking the lift back to the village, Tim reached some high speeds on the Summer sledge run - like a bob sleigh on a slide, it was far too precarious for me. Kandersteg is very pretty and filled with a holiday atmosphere.

We bought mountain cheese, ate delicious homemade cake and wandered around the chalet-packed streets into the evening. We stayed in Chalet Hotel Adler, a cosy 3* with a touch a la Las Vegas. People visit to experience its love rooms, some of which have a whirlpool that can be moved onto the balcony. Our room had a circular bed, which was surprisingly comfy. Dinner was delicious and fresh - I tried penne with spinach and sundried tomatoes in cream sauce. The air is so fresh in Kandersteg and the views unbeatable. If you type the village name into Google, its international Scout centre is the first website to come up - which explains why there are so many scouts around. This is by no means the most remarkable thing about the place. It is the last village before the Loetschberg tunnel so mountains border it on three sides. Truly breathtaking.

Wellness at Waldhaus Flims ...

Here is a place where luxury and wilderness meet. Encompassed by sky-scraper pine trees, the five-star resort Waldhaus Flims is a grand collection of buildings on a mound above the pretty village of Flims. It was built over a hundred years ago as a health retreat. Our room is like a luxurious chocolate box, in shades of caramel and toffee and with sleek, angular lines. The balcony is level with the treetops. A high band of cliffs provides a dramatic backdrop for our dinner on our first night in the Rotonde restaurant, which has 14 Gault Millau points. A floor to ceiling concave, panorama window reflects the dancing candlelight, creating illusionary etchings on the soft cloud formations encircling the mountains.

With bloated tummies from scoffing the delicious dinner, Tim and I make for the Nordic Walking class the following morning - it is cancelled because of the rain. Imagine if companies in Britain followed similar suit! Instead, the instructor runs a step aerobics class in the glass-panelled fitness studio. Afterwards Tim and I cool down in the natural, outdoor pool, where you swim with koi fish. Apparently this means that the water is very clean. I say 'we' - the water is so freezing I plunge in and straight back out - Tim bears it longer. With facilities including a heated outdoor pool with massage jets and an indoor pool in a glass cuboid, with seats around its edges, we quickly feel at leisure. Sadly the cloud scarce lifts and we instead imagine the mountainous view.

I am treated to a La Cauma Signature treatment, involving a body wrap with peat (that relaxes the muscles), a soak in a honey and oil bath (while sipping a homemade cherry smoothie) and a hot stone body massage to improve circulation. For one who finds it hard to relax, my mind gradually escapes to faraway lands. With dinner in a cosy Italian restaurant on the menu for the evening, Tim and I torture ourselves with a Pilates class beforehand. I feel like I might fall over by the end - so eat plenty of homemade potato gnocchi and rosemary focaccia to compensate. Sunnier climes on Sunday mean we make our way to the nearby Lake Cauma after making friends with the resort's friendly pair of donkeys. (Apparently donkeys must be kept in even numbers, otherwise they become sad).

The lake's waters look as if blue food dye has been swirled around in them. Contrasted with the deep green forests around the lake's banks, it makes for a photogenic landscape. There is a lift down the steep slope to the lake, and a pleasant self-service restaurant for light snacks on the lake's shore. Wellness itself is being in the mountains: a stay in a luxurious resort takes it one beautiful step further.

Swimming in the Rhine ...

The Rhine is one of my favourite rivers. It has a solid quality about it - a sense of trudging on day after day, carrying water in its wide girth from Grisons in the eastern Swiss Alps to the North Sea off the coast of Holland. It slithers in a turquoise ribbon, splitting Rheinfelden in Canton Aargau into its Swiss and German halves. When we spend the weekend with Tim's Godmother Marion and her husband, Achim, the weather is the hottest it has been this year - well into the thirties. What better excuse to jump into the somewhat cooler waters of the Rhine? There is a lovely little swimming facility set up on the edge of town.

We acclimatise with a few lengths in the pool before taking the plunge. Having basked for some minutes on the rocky river banks, the sensation when I dip my toes into the water is somewhat 'Atlantic'. Having mustered the confidence to get in though, I am pleased that I did. The current carries me along with such force that I barely need to move my arms and legs. I feel the great power of nature as I reach the end of the short route and struggle to stay to the edge of the river.

During our trip to Rheinfelden we also go to one of the SOLsberg concerts. Organised by Sol Gabetta, an Argentine cellist of French and Russian roots, the festival takes place around Midsummer each year. The Basel Chamber Orchestra (baselkammerorchester) accompany her in the concert we attend and it is just stunning: the crescendos as the orchestra come together, then retreat into silence, the enchanting cries of Gabetta's rare Guadagini cello. Rheinfelden's St. Martin's church with its ancient frescoes was a lovely location for a baking summer's evening. Although we were seated near the back, we could see Gabetta's head bobbing up and down as she became one with her music and cello. A truly magical and not-to-be-missed experience.

The eye of the tourist ...

When Dad and Elsa visit us in Zurich for a few days, it is intriguing to revisit the city through the eyes of tourists. Where I have encountered the locals to be unfriendly and judgemental - staring at me with menacing eyes - Dad and Elsa address this problem in a different way. They speak to them, smile at them and engage them in conversation. It turns out that friendly people can be found here. The sun shines each day, and as the city basks in temperatures of twenty degrees plus, we make the most of the nearby Katzensee to cool down.

Dad points out a family of great crested grebes playing on the water - the young looking lost when their mother dives under for fish, confusion crossing their little faces when she reappears in a different part of the lake. We laugh at coots as they seemingly run on water in chase. The red kite soars ahead, swooping daringly close to the hustle and bustle of the swimming area. We even see a grass snake sneak gracefully across the water beneath the jetty into the safety of the reeds. The warm weather brings thunderstorms in the evening - and we gaze in awe as the sky turns deep indigo, engraved for split seconds by metallic bolts of lightening. A train to the summit of Zurich's "house mountain", Uetliberg, reveals an unbeatable panorama of Lake Zurich. Elsa ticks off a group of Italian teenagers when Dad and I climb to the top of the viewing platform. The weather being so kind, we decide to walk down through the woods and have a cup of tea in a cafe at the bottom.

Those Arran days...

No matter how many times I visit, I will never tire of the Isle of Arran. The friendliness of the place is apparent from stepping onto the ferry: a local helps me with my suitcase and the staff in the restaurant on board are perfectly jolly. I start to forget about the everyday as I tuck into a delicious portion of fresh fish and chips and by the time Tim and I are driving down the coast from Brodick to Lochranza, Switzerland seems a million miles away.

On the coastline that we had observed drawing ever closer from the Cal Mac, we gaze over the expanse of satin water towards the mainland. The evening sunshine splashes gold dust over the pebbly beaches. We are astonished when this gleam first begins to disappear at around 10pm and are treated to a spectacular burnished sunset. A place where time seems to stand still, Lochranza is the perfect destination for relaxation. Spending our days in the fresh air, we quickly begin to feel alive. We dodge midges while playing golf and sneaking peeks at the graceful red deer around us. I hope for a sight of one the calves that are hiding in the bracken!

We climb the Castles - a collection of tumbledown rocky summits at the heart of Arran. The route is unforgiving, but rewarded with views to Bute, Loch Fyne and Kintyre and beyond to Islay. Hiking in Scotland is challenging because there is a distinct lack of paths. This wilderness is at once appealing and intimidating. We sink into bogs, stumble over heather and clamber over boulders. But you don't see another soul and feel at one with nature. Sea kayaking along Machrie Bay is magical: the blue haze of the backdrop, the seal that bobs its head above the surface and accompanies us, and the clear view into King's Caves (the alleged refuge of Robert the Bruce in the thirteenth century).

And I manage to get back in the saddle after so many years when we go riding at Cairnhouse Stables in Blackwaterfoot. Instructor Dawn is very patient with us and expertly combines a beginner's lesson for Tim with a refresher lesson with me. I ride Dynah, a stunning 15.2 hands bay. She is responsive and confidence-inspiring. Benji, Tim's steed, is "the Skoda before the Ferrari", as Dawn lovingly puts it - a predictable and trustworthy horse. Benji may be a "Skoda", but Tim even manages a canter - albeit accidental!

Of course there are the homely tea rooms, too. After our sea kayak we gobble heavenly Victoria Sponge, filled with a naughty amount of fresh cream and jam - I think we earned it! Tim and I treat ourselves to lunch one day in the recently-refurbished Cafe Thyme at the Old Byre Showroom. Its panoramic window reveals the bay and we sit beside a delightful stained glass window depicting a heron and a standing stone - it could be a nod to the prehistoric landscape at Machrie Moor. The food is fresh and delicious - I try a take on the Greek salad.

And The Lighthouse at Pirnmill is a charming spot for an evening meal. The setting is homely: artistic models of lighthouses decorate the airy room that is filled with wooden tables. The large windows are an almost invisible barrier between the restaurant and the landscape. I try cod on olive mash - it is a meal the term "melt-in-the-mouth" could have been made for.

On our last night, Mum treats us to tickets to the Arran Folk Festival. The concert opens with Bobby Watt - a character with a marvellous voice, who tells jokes and sings traditional songs and ballads. The stage comes alive with Lori Watson & The Rule of Three - a trio including guitar, violin and accordian. Singer Lori has a hauntingly beautiful voice and all band members are lively and enthusiastic, drawing the audience into their performance with impossible (in a funny way) singalongs and tales of previous concerts - including in Austria, when a drunk man sang along completely out of tune and time.

The concluding performance is by Anna Macdonald, whose songs are sleepy but moving. We awake almost every day to clear, cool weather and calm seas. Our last day, however, brings stormy winds and deluges of rain. The dramatic sea makes me gasp, as white horses gallop towards the shore and crash against the rocks. Indeed, we are 'lucky' that our ferry back to Ardrossan sails - the subsequent trips that day are cancelled.

A wee island escape

The Isle of Mull on Scotland's west coast is a perfect escape from a landlocked country. Approaching Craignure on the Cal Mac ferry from Oban (with its eerie black granite amphitheatre that overlooks the bay), I first see a campsite full of sheilings - white tarpaulin creations that remind me of a childhood holiday to Mull shacked up in the rain here. Picturesque Tobermory is a central base, we think. However, journeys are unexpectedly long. Mull is a wilderness, populated by only 2700 people in its 300 square miles. On the narrow, pot-holed roads with stops to let traffic pass every few hundred metres, journeys less than 30 minutes are something of a fantasy. Travelling to Ffionport at the end of the Ross of Mull to catch the ferry to Iona and subsequently Staffa turned into something of an epic. As we make our way through Mum's collection of CDs in the car (the evocative chords of The Shipping News are a particularly apt accompaniment), we enjoy views over the intimidating expanse of the Great Glen and eventually Loch Scridain. It is hard to differentiate between mainland and island. The isle of Iona is low-lying and its main attraction the abbey. We climb to its peak, amazed at the mythical landscape that comes into view: archipelagos in translucent grey and silver-blue, a watercolour painting come to life. Back on the shore, a ferry takes us to renowned Staffa - at 59 million years old the stuff that dreams are made of. We approach on the little boat (on an apparently very calm sea), keeping our eyes peeled for wildlife - a common dolphin was spotted in the waters this morning. The Treshnish Isles create an unusual horizon. One is perfectly oblong, like a barge. Staffa was created by lava cooling very very quickly and it is a graceful projection in the volcanic landscape. Its irregular pillars that rise in graph-like formations and form a perfect band of stripes are somewhat unfathomable. The crashing of the waves booms in Fingal's Cave. The sound is mesmerising - ruined only by a tacky tour boat nearby blasting out Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture. The water in the cave bottom is clear as glass. At the other end of the island, characterful puffins decorate the cliffs. They glance at one another, as if in conversation; they flap manically as they come into land on the grassy cliff. I could watch them for hours. Our boat drivers have been fishing during out absence - one is ripping the heads off the catch on the jetty. I hope he washes his hands! We enjoy different spells of weather - and a fortunate lack of rain. In the sunlight of our second evening in Tobermory, the colourful houses are intensified, the reds, pinks and blues reflected in the bay. Perched above these bright blocks on a shelf of leafy clouds is another layer of houses - and 'the' angle for taking photos. We eat in Macgochan's - very tasty, home cooked pub food. We climb the 3,169 feet of Ben More (great mountain) - the only Munro on Mull and the highest peak in the Inner Hebrides excluding the Isle of Skye. The initial shoulder up from Loch na Keal is a slog, but the stretch to the summit is scrambly and we enjoy views over the Sound of Mull. We don't have long there mind - the still air is alive with midges. We descend via neighbouring peak A'Chioch in an exciting horseshoe. We descend ever closer to the azure sea, still as a mill pond and reflecting the looming, watery blue hulks of mountains around. There are interesting gorges en route: slivers of gaps between tightly-positioned cliffs, that allow dainty waterfalls to pass and are home to abundant fauna. Tim's walking boot sole detaches itself during the descent so he flips and flops back to the car, fashioning makeshift solution with gaffa tape. It is heaven sitting on the pebbly beach at the end, with tired limbs. I breathe in the salty air and nibble shortbread, pleased to be so far away from Switzerland. Our final night is spent close to Calgary Bay - like a golden skein of silk. Waves roll onto the beach and retreat, gradually claiming a solitary sand castle. We stay in a charming Bed and Breakfast. Run by artists Helen and Andy, Frachadil House has creative touches throughout that nod to its coastal surroundings. Our room is in cream and pale blue with a gorgeous glass painting of ducks on the wall. The house faces a magical view of Coll, Tiree and even as far as Skye. Our company is in rabbits and sheep. We dine at the Bellachroy - a 16th century inn with whitewash and wooden beams that serves elegant bar meals. Tim has seafood chowder, while I enjoy asparagus and pepper pasta. Oh, and I didn't mention our 'melt-in-your-mouth' starter: fluffy white mackerel with spinach and creamy mash. We awake to driving rain, but Calgary Bay still has inspirational colours: dusky greys and ice blues. We wander around "Art in Nature": a wicker stag, driftwood ducks and crows frozen in flight are creatively arranged in the woodland. Sad to leave this wilderness, we are also excited to return to Arran for the next week of our holiday. We break our return journey with a visit to the prehistoric Kilmartin Glen. Well worth a visit. Tip: If travelling from Arran to Mull via Kintyre, be sure to visit the Seafood Cabin on Kintyre. It serves delicious, local seafood in a quirky setting.

A Genevan dash ...

Geneva looks unremarkable upon arrival in its main station, perhaps like any other city. Its architecture is block-like and unappealing and gangs hang around on street corners. Rather than appearing a pristine Swiss city, it has the atmosphere of a rough French quartier. It isn't until you approach the shores of Lac Leman, where glamorous waterfront buildings have their name emblazoned in large, upright letters on the rooftops that you realise how wealthy the city is. Where Rolex, Cartier and Chanel sit side-by-side, the city meets the lake and a large jet of water spurts 140 metres into the sky at a speed of 200 kph.

The jet d'eau is perhaps the city's finest attraction. Water taxi services ferry city dwellers across the lake and back, providing tourists excellent photo opportunities. There is a nice little cafe situated on a promenade into the lake at the Bains des Paquis. In the summer it serves as a beach with fenced-off lake swimming; we watched a thunder storm approach over the nearby hilltops while sipping freshly squeezed orange, carrot and ginger juice. We dodged runners in the Geneva Marathon and wound through delightful parks with a plethora of pink and purple flowers. In one was an enchanting sculpture of a pony.

Walking around the Rive Droite, or Geneva's red light district, is astonishingly appealing. We stumbled across a little Moroccan bakery selling traditional sweets: typically an almond paste encased in fried dough. Excellent restaurants at reasonable prices are a feature too. We dined in Al-Amir, a lebanese restaurant on Rue Chaponniere. Fresh houmous as a starter and spicy vegetables with rice made for one of the best meals I have enjoyed out in Switzerland. Having hoped to practise my French, I was disappointed to discover that this is one of those places where locals reply in English, and the latter language seems to be the more commonly spoken.

People here are unassuming, compared to Zurich or Basel where the city has a distinct identity and a dress-code to accompany it. The old town is a quaint spot with a pretty spire and the usual cobbled streets. The city boasts some important attractions. The United Nations European Headquarters and the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, to name just two. The UN building is pompously large and has a driveway lined with the flags of the nations - an impressive sight. Across the road, beside a patio of water jets, is a chair built to remind of the horrors of land mines: it has just three legs, the fourth being shattered.

We stayed over night in Hotel Les Nations, just around the corner. It is a charming business hotel with a homely feel and interesting exhibits on each floor, such as a collection of old irons. Worth a look is its Poya (traditional painting from the region that shows cows journeying to alpine pastures for the summer) which is the largest in the world. Meeting up with Tim's sister and brother-in-law, and seeing how much his little niece Charlotte has grown was a real treat. She is the smiley-est child with the most infectious giggle. Three-hour train journey back to Zurich was a bit of a bore, but revealed a scenic landscape of vineyards and mansions ...

The Nightwatchman's Tour of Basel ...

"This looks like an unauthorised assembly," says the nightwatchman and casts a suspicious glance across the group that has assembled beside Basel's Zschokke fountain. He gives us a once over, holding his lantern up to our faces against the dwindling evening light and announces that we may accompany him on his tour of Basel's old town. We follow his cloaked figure along St. Alban's Vorstadt - a quiet road that meanders between sixteenth century buildings. At intervals he explains the history of the area from the ice age until present day: a charming blend of fact and opinion - mostly formed by his overhearing gentlemen through open windows.

The walk becomes yet prettier as it ducks down a gentle hill and buildings rise up from the road on either side. As the light falls, traditional streets lamps cast soft beams and reveal tantalising sections of the scenery: a chunk of old wall here, a quaint fountain there. We peer through an un-shuttered window and see an ancient wooden-beamed ceiling. While a guided tour is one aspect of the tour, theatrics are another. Our guide, Rudolf Streif the nightwatchman, has a secret. She reveals herself early in the walk. Helena is the wife of a soldier, away with the army. She rides higher in society than Rudolf and his forbidden to him. But late at night, as he goes on his round, they meet awkwardly and display a mutual love.

The actors perform a hilarious display of cat and mouse - Helena appears from nowhere, gliding down a stairwell or dozing beside a fountain, and Rudolf disappears telling us he must "hide". Helena complains about her patronising cook at home, suggesting this as the reason for her evening outings. Rudolf hopes she may indeed have another motive: him. Spectacular highlights include a remaining tower of the old city wall, St. Albans Tor (a thirteenth century tower) and an array of old and intricate fountains. And how does the love story end? Well, perhaps you'll just have to attend the tour yourself ...

Some more snaps from Gruyères ...


Le Chemin du Gruyère

La Gruyere's picturesque medieval town Gruyeres nestles into an undulating patchwork of green meadows in Canton Fribourg. The scene looks like a miniature garden for the Gods, kneaded into shape by a giant's hand. The town's fairytale castle perches atop a mound with an impressive backdrop: the sharpened nodes of the Dent du Broc (tooth of Broc) and behind this peak, a jagged cliff rising vertically into the sky to create a distinctive lump. We spent the night in the Hostellerie des Chevaliers, a cutesy hotel with wooden-beamed ceilings and, from its perch just below the mound of Gruyeres, spectacular views across this landscape.

The first thing I noticed from our balcony was the tinkling of cow bells singing throughout the valley. This is perhaps a fitting sound for a region that is most famed for its cheese, Le Gruyere AOC. We enjoyed a tour of the Maison du Gruyere, one of the region's largest working dairies. Making cheese is a hard business: the smell and the humidity in the dairy, not to mention the strong stench of ammonia in the 'cheese cave' make for a trade that requires a strong mind. The process is somewhat magical, and getting just the right cheese is about touching and looking. We tried some Alpage cheese - straight from the alpine pastures. It has a lightly fragranced taste, thanks to the wide variety of plants and herbs the cows gobble (amongst the some 20kg of grass they eat daily) including clover, violet and thyme.

While the cheese is a fat, it's certainly good for you. Cheese making has been important to the economy of the area for hundreds of years. Le Chemin du Gruyere, a picturesque trail that meanders 11km between Gruyeres and Charmey, was used as early as the fourteenth century by farmers to export their cheese. The route is popular with tourists now, and it is easy to understand why. Among the highlights are Le Pont qui branle (the wobbling bridge), which in fact does anything but wobble. It is a solid wooden construction that forms an enclosed tunnel to traverse the River Jogne. The path continues through meadows of dancing dandelions, snakes beside the river then winds over to the Jogne Gorge.

Here, the landscape changes completely. High limestone walls reach for the thick canopy of leaves above, and sunlight dapples through creating a sheen on the mint-coloured water. Interesting geological features betray thousands of years of history, including wave-like fissures in the rock and huge boulders left behind in the river. The water was so still when we walked by, that these incredible formations were reflected flawlessly in it. There is a rather steep climb out of the gorge, but you are rewarded with views of the Lac de Montsalvens, a huge reservoir. You traverse its shore on a concrete walkway, with the lake to your right and a vast wall dropping down on your left.

Charmey is less touristy than Gruyeres and has a different backdrop. The mountains are more imposing, more like the Alps. High above on the Vounetz is a working dairy, and you feel you have come full circle. Other highlights in Gruyeres include the Giger museum - H R Giger did the artwork for the film Alien in 1979. It was really not my cup of tea - very graphic and sexualised in a disturbing way, but he was clearly a talented artist. There is an equally disturbing cafe adjoined to the museum. You walk in and immediately feel you have walked into the cavity inside a human's ribcage. There are structures resembling bones, intestines and goodness-knows what, all crafted in a stone-like material. The seats have an unerring black rubber surface, that you just don't want to sit on. A more pleasant experience was dining in Gruyeres' main square in the evening and being treated to an impromptu Alphorn performance. Alphorns, or alpine horns, look like giant smoking pipes - probably twice as long as a didgeridoo. Having always been a fan of Le Gruyere AOC, I now have a marvellous landscape to conjure in my mind next time I am enjoying bread and cheese!
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