Getaway to Lugano ...

I have seen many beautiful places in Switzerland, but Lugano has just hit the top of the list. I left Zurich on a snowy and grey Friday morning and, after two hours passing through spectacular wintry landscapes and myriad tunnels, discovered where all Switzerland's sunshine hides. Exiting Lugano main station, I gazed at a sweep of mountains against a brilliant azur sky, from Monte Bre to the tooth-like San Salvatore, which thrusts up from Lake Lugano. A nifty funicular takes visitors to the heart of the city centre, where sunlit squares are connected by winding alleyways and hidden corners.

Although it was out of season and so many of Lugano's attractions (such as the cablecars up Monte Bre and San Salvatore) were closed, there was still plenty to do. My hotel, the charming two-star Hotel Pestalozzi, was on the edge of the city centre and only 150-metres removed from the lake. I spent the first five minutes just gazing at the view from my window before going for a wander in the nearby Parco Ciani, which lines the lake front. A warm breeze was whipping up waves on the water; the promise of spring was already heady in the air. Colourful crocuses were peeping up in the gardens - the city will soon be abloom with a marvellous array of flowers. I followed the path along, winding into the city. Here, there is a curious mix of modern, block architecture and grand Italianate buildings - all dotted with mainly banks (Lugano is Switzerland's third-largest financial centre).

I made my way to the famous Piazza Riforma, which is lined with bars and outdoor seating during the summer; even on this day in mid-February, people were sitting outside. Snaking off from here is the swish Via Nassa, lined with designer shops. I made my way along Via Pessina, where I stumbled across a mouth-watering fruit stall (quickly bypassed when I noticed the CHF 75 per kg for cherries) and the divine Gabbani delicatessen. Courtesy of work, I was given a tour by Francesco Gabbani, who now runs the family business with his older brother. It was established in 1937 by his grandfather, a butcher, and is now one of the most popular addresses in the city, selling Ticinese and Italian treats, from bread and pasta, to cheese and wine, and local meats such as the Luganiga sausage.

Another delightful street is the Via Cattedrale, which snakes steeply up to, as you might expect, the cathedral. It is lined with surprising little shops - from haberdasheries to second-hand boutiques and expensive watch shops. Breathless upon reaching the Cathedral, you are rewarded with a magnificent view across the lake. That evening, after Tim arrived, we dined in La Tinera. Set in a basement with a wood-beamed ceiling, it is in the style of a traditional 'Grotto' but serves regional food at great value prices. We both had Ticinese merlot in Tazzina (ceramic cups), then I enjoyed asparagus risotto while Tim had Luganiga sausage with risotto. It was simple, but cooked to perfection - and cost less than a couple of take-out pizzas in Zurich.

The following day, we awoke to a promising golden haze and, keen to absorb as much sunlight as we could before returning to the dark lowlands, took the ferry to nearby Gandria. A tiny cluster of houses clinging to the steep slope, it is just three-kilometres from Lugano and connected by boat or the picturesque Olive Grove walk. We wound out through Gandria, passing tumbledown restaurants and little gateways to secret gardens, before meandering through olive groves and peeping over into cerulean coves. We both felt in the holiday mood - perhaps it was the sunshine, or perhaps not being able to speak a word of Italian. We left knowing "Parla Ingelese", "Buon giorno" and "Arrivederci"! We refreshed at the Grand Cafe Al Porto (with leaf tea and a divine raspberry and lemon-curd tart) then wandered some more around the city. As we later waited at the train station for the train home, the view was spectacular. A pinky haze gently dancing around the mountains and lights beginning to flicker in the landscape. How well I feel after just one night in Lugano.

My complicated relationship with sledging...

Sunlight bursting in ribbons through a delicate canopy of leaves, cerulean blue sky overhead and a voluptuous duvet of lush snow all around us ... so why am I screaming? Why, because I am on a sledge of course - hurtling far too fast down an icy slope and heading for a bend that I am not sure I can steer myself around. This morning - unable to resist being outside on this sunny day (most rare in Zurich these days) - Tim and I headed for the local mountain, Uetliberg, which boasts a sledge route some 3 kilometres long. Sitting on Charlie, our faithful Austrian sledge, we set off, soon grounding to halt where the snow cover had become too thin.

Paddling manically with our feet, we got him moving again only to go hurtling over a series of waves that made us rise and fall with a wallop. Other stretches were icy and sheer, only rarely interspersed with the gentle and smooth gradient that allows you to keep going without your heels dug firmly into the snow. Tim shouted at me to stop braking; I shouted at him for his daredevil nature. Further back on the slope, children were laughing (or was it crying?)... So why did we go? I have always loved sledging - the thrill of whizzing downhill, just slightly out of control. But there are certain conditions to be met: the snow needs to be deep enough, but not so deep it slows you down; the gradient needs to be gentle enough to allow you to keep moving at a consistent speed; the bends need to be long and regular, etc.

My favourite sledge to date was in Saas-Fee, along the Hannig run ( The worst? Well, there have been a few that I would class as hair-raising. But sledging is good fun, I love it really - once I have overcome my fear of speeding off the edge of the mountainside! It gives you a glow in the cheeks and a tickle in the tummy - and oh so often it can be accompanied by a lovely, warm drink in a mountain hut ... (Picture: Hannig in Saas-Fee)

Horse riding in the Freiberg Mountains

It has been a quiet start to the year. Days have been spent in the office watching grey skies turn into even darker skies, and snow fall in pretty balls outside the windows. However last weekend, Tim and I finally escaped Zurich for a pretty corner of Switzerland: the Freiberg Mountains in Canton Jura. It was to be an exciting visit for two reasons. The first, that I was finally going to be getting in the saddle again after months and months. The second, that it was to be my first experience driving 'on the wrong side of the road'. Tim and I made use of a great car rental scheme here called Mobility. The premise is similar to car sharing, and you pick up and drop off cars at various stations around the country. And so we were off.

I found it surprisingly natural to sit on the opposite side of the car to normal and quickly got used to the roads - I did keep reaching for the gear stick at the wrong side though. Every driving challenge was thrown at me - motorway traffic jam, rain, snow ... But finally we pulled into the very picturesque countryside of the Freiberg Mountains region in Canton Jura. It is a landscape of rolling, forested pastures dotted with hamlets and characterised by whitewashed barns with huge sloped roofs, designed to home families and their livestock.

And it is the home of Swiss horse riding, the birth place of the only indigenous horse breed Freiberger, or Franches-Montagnes. Actually, the horses Tim and I rode on our two hour trek with the Manège Franches-Montagnes were Demi-sang, or half-blood. They were stunning, both over 16 hands high and one, Image, the most beautiful shade of chestnut; the other, Carpe Diem, a stunning bay. Tim and I were both a little aghast at their size to begin with - these aren't the kind of horses you get to go trekking on! The area is laced with 250 km of bridle paths, specially prepared by the AREF association, who have put in place automatic gates that are easy for riders to use without dismounting.

Our route took us along cosy forest trails - so narrow I kept having to duck under low-hanging branches, occasionally receiving a dusting of snow down my neck. Image was frisky, trying to escape the reins as we trotted, but it was thrilling. On horseback in the winter you can enter the scenery unnoticed. All around us a voluptuous carpet of snow; nothing but the sound of the horses disturbing the silence. At one point, two deer danced across the path in front of us. We felt a wonderful sense of freedom and, although the cold nipped our fingertips and froze our toes, we returned to Zurich with a glow of the outdoors about us - and wonderfully high spirits after escaping the city for the day!
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