Dreaming of chipboard: Camping in Solothurn

My childhood holidays involved British campsites and, many times, wet weather. You'd be forgiven for thinking I'm a hardy camper. Trouble is, with my travel writing exploits, I have become accustomed to spa and design hotels ... So when faced with the idea of a press trip to stay on a campsite I was nervous. I haven't actually been camping - properly - for about a decade. But it being a press trip and all, I didn't actually have to go near a tent.

Our visit was to TCS Camping Solothurn, a tranquil site on the banks of the River Aare and just minutes outside the beautiful Baroque town of Solothurn in Central Switzerland. With the turquoise river on one side, and meadows leading to the edge of the Jura foothills on the other, it was a gorgeous scene. The campsite is modern, with spacious and clean facilities, a playground, restaurant, shop and bathing areas.

Our accommodation for the night was a cabin - one of the "glamping" options, which also include pods, safari tents and circus wagons. It looked like something out of a Sylvanian families set from outside; inside, it was nothing less than a temple to chipboard. I mean, there was chipboard panelling absolutely everywhere ... Arty Swiss interior design? I'm not sure.

Chipboard aside, it was cosy for a night (though I am now dreaming of chipboard) - and anyway, we planned on spending the rest of the time outdoors. We wandered along the riverside path by the campsite, stopping for a paddle - when Tim got attacked by a naughty child with a water gun! Then we hired electric bikes - it was a total revelation!

We set off from the campsite beneath blazing sunshine, riding into a warm headwind. On an ordinary bike it would have been hell. On these so-called "Flyers" it was effortless. I felt like a Tour de France sprinter (at least with the electric assistance mode set to high), speeding along the country paths, the wind in my hair and flies splatting my face. We stopped at little village Altreu, where there is a stork sanctuary, and watched some of these lumbering birds taking off - they looked like something from a children's picture book with their cute-but-awkward dimensions.

Our route then took us to Büren, a medieval town on the river, with access via a magnificent covered wooden bridge. Here, we enjoyed ice cream and listened to the notes of a saxophone drifting down on the wind from a local wedding. That evening at the campsite we dined in the brand new restaurant Pier 11. It was a chic affair, all decking and lamps, and attracted a stylish deck-shoe-wearing crowd who'd sailed into the campsite's harbour. I enjoyed a vegetable terrine, while Tim ordered chicken filled with chorizo.

As we settled down beneath our chipboard ceiling, a storm raged outside - and I can honestly say I haven't slept so well in a long time. TCS Camping Solothurn is a great get-away-from-it-all retreat, whether you want to be active, sit around and read, or go wildlife spotting. The following morning, we pottered around Solothurn. It has 11 of everything (it was the 11th canton to join the Swiss Confederation). For me, it had a touch of Innsbruck in the facades lined up along the river. Its imposing St Ursas cathedral was spectacular. We sat outside a cafe on the square below munching Solothurner cake (a light, nutty thing with meringue), people watching and admiring the cathedral's 66-metre tall facade.

'Caves ouvertes' but not a sip of wine: Lavaux

When you approach Lavaux, a UNESCO World Heritage Site of 11th-century terraced vineyards lined up above Lake Geneva, it is like entering another world. Descending by car into an apparent nothingness, ahead of you is a curtain of varying hues of blue interjected by bright greens. We'd booked into our favourite B&B, Domaine du Burignon, a turreted building at the heart of a vineyard above St. Saphorin. I've written about the area before, so won't go into too much detail.

This was the weekend of Caves Ouvertes, when all Canton Vaud's wine cellars open for two days. Oddly, we didn't make it to a single one, but then, neither of us are big drinkers. Instead, we went to lounge in the B&B's garden, to walk among the vineyards, to watch the sun set over the lake. On our first day, we ascended via the bustling village of Chexbres (where we return - almost apologetically - time and again to Boulangerie Bidlingmeyer for freshly squeezed orange juice, white wine-and-cinnamon tarts and coffee eclairs) to the agricultural land behind the vineyards.

There, we meandered through meadows glowing with buttercups, beneath shaded woodland and past tumbledown farms. That afternoon, we ate pastries bought at Bidlingmeyer (obviously) while lying on sun chairs outside Domaine du Burignon and looking at the lake - totally hedonistic. We dined at Cafe de la Poste in Chexbres - local fare of meat or fish with chips, but spiced up with Portuguese influences. I had perch with chips, and Tim, the pork option. The best bit was the view: outdoor seating was arranged on a square that opened onto the lake.

The following day, we walked part of the wine route to Rivaz, west of St. Saphorin, tripping over our feet when becoming too distracted by that view. The villages are sleepy, centred around their wine-growing heritage. The area is south-facing, and finding shade is tricky - it is heavenly when a breeze sweeps in. I can compare it only to the Cote d'Azur, where gold meets turquoise and vistas look as if painted by hand. Go there to relax, to get away from it all, and, if you fancy it, drink wine to your heart's content.

Chateau de Chillon, Alpine mexicana and a flippin' pricey car park: One day in Montreux

Montreux doesn't require much introduction. We parked in a swish underground car park and exited onto an expansive waterfront. The enormous facades of glitzy hotels lined up, jostling for the best views of Lake Geneva and the Alps rising from the opposite bank. Live jazz music floated from a terrace to the promenade below, where we sidled along, excited about our first visit to this renowned resort town. Exploration could wait until later, though, as we had other plans.

We boarded a Belle Epoque paddle steamer - the commoner's way to feel like royalty - which sped us further east to Chateau de Chillon. Viewed from the water, Montreux certainly had something of Monaco, but many of the high-rise buildings were intrusive - a blot against the backdrop of the rocky Rochers de Naye mountain.

Chateau de Chillon, recognisable from any Swiss memorabilia you pick up, looked as if implanted by CGI. It was a golden, turreted affair, built onto a little island at the edge of the lake. Inside, the 12th-century monument oozed an oppressive sense of history. The vaulted cellar rooms were cold and shadowy, home now to just a nesting bird and her chirping chicks, while the adjacent prison featured graffiti by Lord Byron, who based his "The Prisoner of Chillon" on Francois Bonivard - a prisoner here in the 15th century, able to hear the lake lapping outside but not see the gorgeous view. In the crypt, an eery projection of a priest moving across the wall made me jump out of my skin.

We continued via a maze of courtyards on different levels, each leading into different parts of the castle. There were latrines projecting into the lake, walls decorated using tempera and ceremonial rooms with wood panelling and an ancient scent of damp.

Later, back in Montreux, hunger led us around the alleyways. We didn't find much of interest, bar the statue of Freddie Mercury performing to the lake and famous Confiserie Zurcher, where we bought melt-in-your-mouth cheese straws and house speciality chocolate-coated, wafer-thin meringues. We ended up on Avenue des Alpes, where there is a slew of restaurants - of varying quality but much cheaper than those on the waterfront.

Spontaneously, we entered Fondu Mexicana - a seedy-looking place, but Tim "really fancied Mexican food". it went something like this: "Une table pour deux, s'il vous plait." Waiter: "I speak no French, only Spanish and English. Please..." (motioning in sweeping gesture not far removed from Basil Fawlty). He seated us at "the best table", in the window, with views onto the mountains, but cleared off a "reserved" notice in the process.

We were the only guests there, surrounded by brightly coloured napkins bursting from glasses and a Mexican soundtrack charging the atmosphere. After taking our orders, the waiter set to - he seemed to be the chef as well. Within 10 minutes, he brought out fajitas, guacamole, and a sizzling pan of chicken and vegetables. Then he departed, leaving us with no crockery or plates. "Perhaps he's gone to get them," I suggested, hearing rustling from the kitchen. Minutes later, nothing. Tim called to kitchen and asked for plates. "Oh, I wondered why you not eating!" exclaimed the chef/ waiter. "I'm sorry. My place is in the kitchen, not out here!"

Well, we couldn't have asked for a more characterful end to our day. And the food was really good to boot. Perhaps not the Montreux we had expected. No, we got that when paying for the car park later - just CHF 22!!!
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