Cosy in Tirol: A rainy weekend in Seefeld

On a wet summer's weekend in Tirol, when feisty storms brew in the mountains and sweep up Alpine passes, a 1930s chalet in Seefeld proves to be the perfect hideaway.

The sitting room in our 1930s chalet for the weekend has a broad low-slung window that is like a cinema screen showcasing the natural world. Through it, we watch as seething storms brew in the mountains, their steely weight throbbing beyond the languid and ghostly silver birches that surround the chalet. There are stumpier fruit bushes dotted around the patio, and as the wind ripples through, it tosses the leaves at random, generating a disharmonious shiver. When the rain comes, the view looks like static on a screen. Although we're on the edge of central Seefeld in Tirol, and surrounded by other properties, you wouldn't know they were there.  

We spent the morning walking from the lively streets of the centre to the Wildmoosalm. We swapped cobbles for woodland scattered with wildflowers. Albie completed a kids' Olympia Parcours hidden in the woods and ran a lot of the way to the alm. "Gimpft, getestet, geduscht?" (Vaccinated, tested, showered?) joked the waiter when we arrived. He looked fresh from the set of the Austrian TV show 'Die Piefke Saga', with his leather trousers, sunbeaten skin and mop of straight black hair. We smiled even more when he presented our Apfelstrudel - delicious layers of buttery pastry struggling to contain a gooey mush of punchy spiced apple.

When we returned to central Seefeld, it was abuzz: the streets lined with restaurants spilling onto sun-drenched terraces that themselves overspilled. Seefeld embodies the charming Tirolean town image. Its russet-spired church pokes up from a huddle of white chalets with sloping roofs and window boxes, and all around, these low-slung hulks of mountains part to make way for narrow Alpine passes. In the fissures between the buildings are pretty streets with colourful flowerbeds, designer boutiques, and mineral and precious stone bazaars.

It's a picturesque 30-minute train ride to Innsbruck, the capital of the Tyrol. The day we visited, it was heaving, despite persistent rain that spilled from the defiant clouds clinging to the Nordkette mountain chain and Patscherkofel. The River Inn was swollen, rushing and pale khaki, its banks like Elizabethan ruffs with trees in full foliage. We sat next to a window in Cafe Katzung opposite the Golden Roof - the luck of timing; it was the one free table when we arrived and soon afterwards, a queue had formed out of the door. We watched the rain spill onto the old town while drinking tea made with herbs from the region and devouring Katzungtorte - light, moist and sweet hazelnut sponge with orange and cacao. I remember enjoying it when I lived in Innsbruck more than a decade ago. It's reassuring to know that no matter how much changes in life, some things stay the same.

I experienced a similar feeling when our train arrived back at Seefeld station. It was a journey I made many times as an Erasmus student in Innsbruck, usually to come cross-country skiing on the plateau here. Today it's summer, but it doesn't feel like summer, and I'm happy to get back to our chalet. Inside, the floorboards creak as if the building is speaking to you. There's something homely about that. I like too the natural tones of taupe and grey with splashes of pale pink and sheepswool cushions, with oak flooring and Scandi-style furniture. In the garden there's a trampoline, where Albie will bounce when the rain eases, his little shape flying up and down against the backdrop of the soaring wave shape that is Seefeld's iconic mountain, Hohe Munde. 


Where the wild waters rush: Segnesboden, Flims

Meander the elevated plain of Segnesboden, a pearl in a shell created by the dazzling rock formations of the UNESCO World Heritage Tectonic Arena. Here, water glides and gushes and roars, and wildflowers twinkle. 

The streams glide across the Segnesboden plain with ease, glittering in the sun and gentle enough to ford, then tumble down the mountainside, thrashing and beating and forcing between the rocks as if trying to create more space, spitting out spray in ferocious rage. But so delicate is our path between the wildflowers - speckles of purple, yellow, pale pink, china blue, indigo, magenta and rich rose pink. Rising behind us now are the spectacular rock formations of the Tschingelhörner, a chain of jagged mountains in the UNESCO World Heritage Tectonic Arena Sardona. 

A straight line as if drawn by a ruler splices the chain in half. It was created when the two tectonic plates from Africa and Europe collided and the older layer of rock was pushed above the younger one. Somewhere up there is Martinsloch, a 15-metre wide hole in the Tschingelhörner created by erosion, but it's hidden from view here. 

After taking the cable car up to Segneshütte and crossing the cauldron-like plateau, we are meandering back down to the lively resort of Flims in the canton of Graubünden. It's a 13km descent beside the gushing river, which viewpoints intermittently open onto, so we can feel the spray against our faces as the water crashes past. We pass through wildflower meadows and woodland so tightly woven that the air within feels cool on our legs. You'd have no idea that mankind was around for, apart from lift infrastructure in places, you can't see any signs. Even as we hear Flims, the world is still hidden by layers of dense woodland. The air smells clean, the water looks cleaner still - pure meltwater, translucent blue. I can still feel the refreshing bite of it around my ankles as we forded the stream higher up on the plateau then tumbled over the pebbly ground as the knobbly stones massaged our feet, 

Further down, it's like descending through Rivendell, the gorge criss-crossed with arching bridges. Then deep green foliage fluttering sunlight across the ground like the designs of a kaleidoscope. On the cable car up, the lift attendant had pointed out chamois grazing in high meadows. Down here we can hear birdsong and our path is crossed by tiny butterflies. Even low down we feel high up and enjoy huge panoramas over the surrounding mountainscapes through the trees. 

Let's just do an easy walk, we had said. Just a descent. But it's never just a descent, especially not when it's accompanied by scenery like this.

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Castles in the sky: Chateau d'Oex

 Go slow in Chateau d'Oex, a pretty microcosm of Switzerland with decorative chalets, snowy mountains and satisfying strolls aplenty.

I've not yet worked out what puts the castle in Oex, but as the sun rose this morning, so too did a hot air balloon, a short distance from our balcony. It sighed as it gained height, like a whale exhaling from its blowhole. The village in the Pays d'Enhaut, between the citadel of Gruyère and the Swiss Riviera on Lake Geneva, is the hot-air-ballooning capital of Switzerland thanks to its gentle climate. It's utterly charming: a warren of wooden chalets, some dating from the 17th century, like galleys on tall ships with little windows lined up in dark walnut facades. Their balconies are intricately carved (a trademark of the region) and cauldrons hang from alcoves. Some have piles of firewood arranged under overhanging roofs. 

Jagged teeth of mountains form a sort of battlements in the sky, among them La Vidamanette and Gummfluh - not large in proportion but spectacular in outline. The terrace of our Airbnb for the week looks out onto them over a patchwork of rooftops and fuzzy pine forest. Birdsong pipes all around. You can hear distant vehicles and trains, and the groan of tractors in fields. The smell of manure drifts on the air. Inside, the apartment is bright and functional, and it will do nicely. 

One day, a lasso of the village brings us down to the river, La Sarine. The sun bursts over the mountaintops then rolls into the lace-like tangle of woodland, dappling the still-snowy earth. It casts highlights on branches and rushing waves. We cross an icy bridge being battered by a waterfall, before climbing to the sun-drenched slope above the village, where smart farmhouses with cheerful Easter decorations bask in wide meadows. From here we can see the length of Chateau d'Oex - from the church on its mound to the rooftop of our Airbnb on the edge of the village in La Frasse. As the sun plops out of sight, we wander into the village. Its main street features shops with intricate signage and we find a lovely boulangerie-cum-grocer's (La Consommation) where we buy locally made bread, lemon cake, and a smoked cheese from the region - l'Etivaz. That night, we watch as the full moon rises behind the mountains.

We're startled into life at Les Mosses the following day, when we become (almost) entangled with a "cross" country skier. "Faites attention!" he yells as he hurtles past. We scramble at the noise - ill suited for its purpose of making us move out of the way, it instead makes us scatter like sheep. It turns out we've missed the sign and strayed from the winter walking trail onto the cross-country loipe. Luckily we're among the only people on the high moor. Les Mosses-La Lécherette is a wide snowy plateau with dense copses and rivers twinkling between snowy banks. Its name comes from a local word meaning 'marshy area', and on this end-of-season day, the ski lifts now closed, it is tranquil.    

Another short drive away, past villages that look like paper chains of chalets and the glitzy tangle of Gstaad, is the Lauenensee - a marzipan puddle basking between great hulks of snowy rock and pine forest. The day is so warm that it's a surprise to see the lake frozen, but around the edges it is starting to melt, white fusing into milky turquoise. Albie throws stones and they thump into the soft surface. It's as if I'm wearing noise-cancelling headphones; the only sounds arise when we encounter other walkers. After climbing to the lake along a woodland road, our return route follows a panoramic trail that winds between decoratively carved farmhouses and barns, eventually reaching the village of Lauenen in warm sunshine. 

If we take the road that climbs up behind our apartment, following the brook, we reach the path to Rossinière. Scattered with pine cones, perfectly formed as if styled for an interiors magazine, it is hewn into the mountainside. Steep meadows tumble below, and on the horizon, there's a delight of mountains. It ducks in and out of sun-dappled woodland, passes sleepy cheese huts and meadows blooming with crocuses, and descends again beside a stream shushing as it squeezes between boulders then exhaling into translucent pools. We pass a blossom tree that appears to have an electric current passing through it: bees.  Rossinière is quaint, a tangle of elegant stone houses with well-kept gardens and stucco barns with gambrel rooftops. From here, we could return to Chateau d'Oex by train (the Montreux-Oberland Bernois line passes through) but the day is so fresh and bright that we take the 40-minute walk along La Sarine and through juicy meadows. There's a stench of manure and oh, but it stinks. 

As for that castle, there are the ruins of Vanel on the hillside near Rougemont, but more striking still are those bulbous balloons that rise as if towards castles in the sky. On our final morning, the mountains shimmering yellow, the Chateau d'Oex-branded hot air balloon propels gently upwards and we watch from our terrace, the crisp breeze licking our cheeks.  



Flying buses and cogwheel railways: Mount Rigi on a Monday

Take to the panoramic slopes of Rigi on a weekday to have the famous mountain in Central Switzerland to yourself. The Panorama Path that culminates at Rigi-Scheidegg is the perfect sort of walk. 

It's a Monday in December and I have fallen into bed good tired, fresh-air tired. A different sort of tired to the usual Monday-tired. Here's why: we've spent the day on Rigi, Queen of Mountains, in Central Switzerland, using a spare day of holiday to experience one of the country's most famous excursions at a quiet time. 

Popular since the Victorian era, when Queen Victoria ascended the summit side-saddle on her pony, Rigi is still a popular excursion. It is renowned for its 360-degree panoramas and magical sunsets. We followed the 7km Panorama Path from Rigi Klösterli to Rigi Scheidegg with two aims: a gentle walk and great views. 

The cogwheel railway, which just turned 150 (it was completed three years after Victoria's visit), whisked us up from Goldau on the shores of Lake Lucerne into folds of snow and pine trees decorated white. Emerging at Rigi Klösterli on the southern flank of the mountain, we immediately knew the path would offer what the panoramas it promised. Tumbling away from the train station, the mountain unfurled like the pleats of a skirt, swooping and swooshing in layers of woodland and meadow and rock to the lowlands.

As we set off, the path was beautifully prepared and gently ascending, following the route of a railway that was in situ from 1874 to 1931. It passed old railway bridges and through a tunnel, but the views it afforded were the highlight. From every stretch of the path, they expanded as far as the eye could see - over the lakes of Lucerne and Zug to the lowlands, and all the way to the marshmallow-white Bernese mountains. As we walked Rigi fanned out, now reminding me of a tossed duvet, the folds represented by different valleys and shoulders rising to the summit. The cloud was matte grey so the scene looked soft-focused.

Approaching Rigi-Scheidegg, we walked into snowflakes floating horizontally, and we sang "Walking in the air" while motioning aeroplane arms. Albie loved the child-sized gondola outside the cablecar station, where we played as an icy wind rushed through. He was even more excited by the prospect of the "flying bus" (Albie-ish for 'gondola') that would take us down to Kräbel, where we would rejoin the cogwheel railway bound for Goldau. 

Every Monday should be spent in the mountains: all that fresh air and scenery will ensure a spring in my step the whole week long, and a good sleep tonight.

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Central Switzerland: Winter walking to welcome 2021

Sattel in Central Switzerland is a great base for winter walks that take you high among marshmallow peaks or low on upland moorland where loipers criss-cross between ancient huts and frozen rivers. 

As our boots sank into light fluffy snow that sprayed like foam around our ankles, we knew we must have lost the path. Winter walks in Switzerland tend to be prepared - pisted, so that as your boots tread they create a sound like creme brûlée being broken. On our trail, we'd have been better off with snowshoes - with which, in fact, most of our companions on the mountain were kitted out. It was unexpected, let's say, a little like 2020 and so a perfectly fitting end to the year.

We had taken the gondola - a tiny red cabin strung between two wooden huts - out of Illgau, or "Switzerland's sun terrace", a collection of chalets tumbling from a steep, south-facing valley between Muotathal and Ibergeregg in Canton Schwyz. Soon, we arrived in a magnificent white scene, where marshmallow lumps merged with a bleached sky. As we tumbled through the snow, criss-crossing here and there to find any better-trodden routes, we gazed upon the sharp charcoal summits of Stoos-Muotathal and the Schwyzer basin. It was just wonderful to be out, path or no path. We still couldn't work out where we had gone wrong.   

The valleys in this part of Switzerland are narrow and sheer, the mountains packed tightly together. Gatekeeper to the kingdom, Grosser Mythen rises up from the lowlands as if surprised at its triangular proportions. It is past this rocky giant that we have driven each day en-route to our Airbnb in Sattel, where we are staying over new year. From the terrace, a white landscape unfolds, studded with shingled farmhouses and barns with low-sloping roofs. On the horizon, Rigi and its Scheidegg peak can be seen, a fan of geological shoulders, like a 1950s skirt or a snowman that has melted. I love to watch the lights twinkling up high after dark. 

Back in Illgau, we manage a circular route of sorts, ending up at Illgau St.Karl for the return gondola trip. Albie terms gondolas 'flying buses' and I find this rather charming. The following day, our muscles sore, we tumble through yet more deep mounds of unprepared snow as we make our way along the two-hour panoramic path from Mostelberg mountain above Sattel to Rothenthurm. I wonder if the lack of path preparation is a result of COVID somehow - reduced workforces or a deterrent to keep people off the mountain. 

We reach the top of the rotating gondola in a warm light, the sun casting a golden puddle of heat, but once across the 374-metre suspension bridge over the Laui ravine, we enter Mäderen forest on the shady side of the mountain to begin our descent. Here, an almost blue light casts a cold that bites our fingertips. The pines rise khaki-green from cotton-wool snow - it's always Narnia for me, this winter wonderland. Where the view opens up, we can see Lake Aegeri, the Rigi massif and Mount Pilatus. 

In Rothenthurm, beyond the woodland, cross-country skiers glide past the train station. It's a bustling, colourful scene but we can hear no noise, as if we are looking at a winter postcard. We take the train back to Sattel as mist is pumped into the valley as if from a snow machine. My cheeks feel like they have an internal radiator as the warmth replaces the cold.

On the final day of our short break, we return to Rothenthurm to walk on the moorland that borders the village. At last, a properly prepared path! It traverses Switzerland's largest upland moor on a high plateau where the Biber river is tangled in frost. The cloud is hanging low so the whole scene is a study in pale grey, definition provided by mountain pines and birches huddled against the cold, and the 14th-century, red-roofed "Türa", the tower that gives the village its name. On a clear day we would be able to see the Höhronen, Morgartenberg and the hills rising to the Katzenstrick pass. Across the plateau are huts that were once used to dry extracted peat, and cross-country loipers bustling with skiers. This is winter walking its finest: a route where you can let loose in a wide scene dotted with trees and wooden huts. But Central Switzerland really has it all, as we have seen in just three days over new year.


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