THE TINY, RED TRAIN wound its way into a fairytale land of green grass, colourful cottages and immaculate flower beds. Seven Australians, faces pressed against the spotless windows, were making the journey along the Bernina Pass, which crosses the Italian border near Tirano, into Switzerland, to spend nine glorious days on the side of a mountain.
We were in a town called Poschiavo, a quaint place of cobbled streets, bubbling brooks, elderly gentlefolk enjoying ice-cream in the sunshine and windowboxes bursting with colourful blooms.
The ancient chalet, passed down through my friend's family for generations, came complete with typical mountain-dwelling charm - a deer head hung on the wood-panelled walls, a huge stove took up a corner of the dining room, us tall Antipodeans had to duck through door frames and lace-framed windows displayed the lush forest surrounding us.
Our group had travelled from Australia, Geneva and Greece to step back in time in this tiny mountain town. Friendships went back as far as childhood and high school. The reunion was a gaggle of screams, hugs and chatter.
News was shared as we meandered around the lake, the Lago di Poschiavo, nestled among the leafy fringes of the forest-clad mountains. Switzerland began to work her magic on our tense travel muscles and life stresses.
The long European days are all part of the charm - it is possible to walk from 6.30 a.m. until 8.30 p.m. We embraced the Swiss taste for wholesome food and on day one our packs were full of cheese and salami rolls, fruit and, of course, Swiss chocolate and Gummi bears.
We discovered that ice-cold mountain spring water was offered up like tonic from the gushing streams, cleaner and better-tasting than any bottled water.
Hiking Switzerland: Sfazu
Boarding the bus to Sfazu, we soon realised passengers must have complete faith in the driver, as he chats happily while negotiating perilous roads wrapped along impossible edges. We were taking on the Val di Campo walk and our destination was a lake at the summit; the very idea sounded almost fantastical.
The breathtaking scenery provides the perfect distraction from burning legs and oxygen deprivation as we climb steeply upwards. The path opens out regularly on Sound of Music-esque meadows, with waving wildflowers and cows jangling with bells as they chomp on the thick grass.
Occasionally we stumble upon small cabins, and wonder at the isolated lifestyle and the sheer ability to survive in the cold clutches of an icy winter so high up. Piles of firewood perfectly stacked like a completed jigsaw puzzle gave some indication of the harsh, freezing conditions they must endure.
The sound of rushing water grows louder and, suddenly, there is the lake, its glacial blue-green water sparkling in the sunshine as a stream runs merrily away, bouncing across glistening, smooth rocks. We're not the only ones marvelling at the beauty of this sky-high lake, and one elderly lady unashamedly strips off for a skinny-dip - a brave frolic in water that cannot be more than 10ºC.
The weather is a funny thing in the Alps... At home, you can see dark storm clouds come rolling in from the west, hours before the air becomes heavy with the scent of rain and thunderclaps shatter the stillness. In Switzerland, the weather can change in an instant and without warning.
Considering most of us were squeezing Switzerland in as part of a European jaunt to other destinations, hiking boots, poles and waterproof jackets weren't too high on the packing list.
Hiking Switzerland: Weathering the San Romerio ruins
So, dressed in a range of leggings, shorts and cotton singlets, we were a good three hours into our hike and chatting happily as we ascended towards the ruin of a church at San Romerio. The light rain dusted our clothes, but the thick pine needles above mostly protected us from the shower. It was a different scene when we finally emerged from the forest, still a few hours' trek from the summit.
The sleet-like rain was almost horizontal, and stung like needles against our bare skin, due to the fierce wind. We huddled near a wall, wrapping soggy cardigans around our heads and stamping our bare legs, incredulous at how quickly our runners became waterlogged.
Around the corner loped some seriously seasoned hikers - they were clad in ankle-length ponchos, their backpacks had raincovers, they were armed with walking poles and their sensible hiking boots did not look soggy in the slightest. It cruelly hammered home the fact that denim shorts and singlets are not appropriate hiking gear for the Swiss Alps - even in summer.
With much swearing and complaining, we scrapped our plans to reach the ruins and headed back into the forest, where we hoped for some reprieve. The wind ceased but the damage had been done - we were all soaking and faced a two-hour trek back to HQ. Gummi bears and chocolate was the glue which held the morale of our shivering group together. A hot shower has never felt so good.
The Swiss are renowned for many things: their precision, their love of punctuality and, of course, their perfectionism. Their mountain adventures are organised by these principles: the trains are well-organised and on time. The trails are perfectly maintained and meticulously marked.
It is difficult to get lost and there is a sense of calm knowing that, unlike Australia, there aren't any deadly critters that can strike down unsuspecting hikers. Just butterflies, deer and birds - none of which are of the killing variety. The forest is quiet and the paths are springy underfoot because of the pine needles.
Food is central to the Swiss way of life - it is a time to spend with family, it is nourishment and health, it is sharing, and a chance to swap plenty of gossip with neighbours. Wandering through Poschiavo, it was plain to see that this maxim lives on. Next to the manicured houses, vegetables are obsessively arranged into perfect rows and paths delicately wind their way around the beds.
The ethereal Switzerland beckoned us to her magical land with a crooked finger. We were enchanted, we were charmed, we were put under her spell. And we emerged rejuvenated, relaxed and refreshed.
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