All I know of my family history is so sketchy and shrouded in urban myths that I decided to go to Switzerland, the land of my forebears, to get a sense of my origins and of Alpine life. And I was soon to realise that rather like Roger Federer, her most celebrated compatriot, Switzerland has both immense style and a charmingly modest streak.

She undersells herself. Some skiers might debate it but Switzerland is the quintessential Alpine country though one with an unarticulated soul. Switzerland is both French without the shoulder-shrugging insouciance, German (with its territory and language being over 60 per cent of the country) without the direct matter-of-factness, and Italian but with the impartiality.

To get an authentic idea of typical Switzerland (think cheese, skiing, chocolate, and clocks) I began in the Jura valley to sense the freshness of air, the purity of water and the drama of mountains. Here I got a real sense of the scale of the mountains from the rather unusual angle of underneath, where journeying below can be as challenging as climbing above, with a trip down the underground mines of Travers. Here, for over 100 years, asphalt was laboriously mined and exported all over the world for road construction.

It made me want to explore the neighbouring Vallorbe Caves, the biggest in Switzerland with their subterranean river creating a secret and enchanting world. It’s a fairyland of strange concretions and immense vaults, formed by water with cascades, lakes, stalactites and stalagmites. It reminded me of Coleridge’s Kubla Khan… “where Alph, the sacred river, ran through caverns measureless to man down to a sunless sea.”

The Swiss in this region historically found other ways to work their way through the winter months. And this is what is so unique and special. The application, the accuracy, the precision involved is a stunning tribute to mankind with the watches and clocks in the Joux Valley, the cradle of ‘grande complication’ watches and the Music Boxes in Sainte-Croix, the world capital of mechanical music which is still producing music automatons.

They say that man is happiest in motion, that getting from A to B creates purpose and brings with it the immense satisfaction of achievement. Reaching Zermatt by train from Geneva airport, I slipped into neutral as the delights of the countryside passed me by. Less flashy than Gstaad, St. Moritz or Klosters and more extreme, Zermatt is the last stop before the Alps create their impasse. It first came of age when Englishman Edward Whymper set out in 1865 to climb the Matterhorn, the predominant feature that bears down upon the town. This beautiful mountain of Caran d’Ache fame has a majestic presence and mesmeric change of appearance across the day as the clouds descend or lift or fix themselves on its gnome-like snowcap. It’s an impressive 4,478 metres high and nearby is the highest cable car in Europe, the ‘glacier paradise’ offering all-year-round skiing. The snow on the crest of the mountains made it easy for me to envisage the winter season with its guaranteed white Christmas (though snow has to be manufactured at times to satisfy the skiers).

What I liked about Zermatt was its authenticity. It’s still a working community with men in short woolen trousers and women in long thick dresses made of dark red wool. It’s not solely a tourist resort. There are parades and festivals, singing and yodelling, squeezeboxes and zithers. These days this German-speaking town has a Portuguese community that’s 3,000 strong alongside the original Zermatters (2,000) and other foreigners (1,000). At the main church there are different masses for Germans, Italians, and Portuguese. This syncretism, this progressive harmony is similarly evident in the lack of rubbish and graffiti. There are no cars, only electric taxis and the electricity is all powered by local water.

The summer season, from mid-June to the end of September, is a third less busy than its December to April winter counterpart. It took me a bit of time to adapt to the altitude but twenty yawns later and I was ready to explore. This is a place for early rising and for the goats too who come directly through the village at 9am. So I got up early to take myself off on a hike up the mountains, along the supposed ‘granny trail’ that turned out to be a little steeper and more arduous than I had bargained for. I was told, “It’s not the mountain we have to conquer, but ourselves.” Of course! At least I got the just deserts of a lunch at the perfect food stop, Chez Vrony, a family-run restaurant on the Sunnegga side, close by a charming 18th century chapel. Here at last I was able to put my feet up literally on a lounger wrapped in wool as I took in both the views and a local beer.

I stayed at the traditional and highly luxuriant Chalet Les Anges and I only had to pull back the curtains to witness the Matterhorn towering over the town and below a valley with its clustered charm of Alpine chalets. Nearby is its sister Chalet Maurice using the same interior designer, Magali de Tscharner, and perfect for celebrities as it offers total discretion with its own funicular entrance and proximity to the heliport. All so James Bond, as well as being a favourite of Theresa May’s I managed to discover. The next morning I decided to conquer the mountain a second way by overcoming my phobia for cable cars. It felt very liberating as my fear melted before the sight of the snowy peaks. I took one to Furi and then onto Schwarzsee to sense what it was like to be up among the Gods. There were lovely panoramas of snow-capped mountains and precipices and the freshest of air. I returned to Furi for a lovely walk down through the forest to Zum See, a charming hamlet on the Matterhorn Paradise side where the eponymous restaurant served a homely, hearty menu.

On leaving Zermatt I witnessed runners from all over the world competing in a marathon and pacing themselves as they ran steeply uphill. From one ‘peak bashing’ competition to the next as Nendaz, my next destination, was having a summer contest that was equally bracing and demanding. No granny trails for them.

At Nendaz I stayed at the Chalet Etoile. It’s part of the Hideaways Club, membership to which allows access to a portfolio of properties all over the world. Nendaz is famed for its historic ‘bisses’, small irrigation canals which are still such a vital water source and highly reminiscent of the Jean de Florette film. The years that must have gone into their construction! They also offered a refreshing dip for Kelsie, a lovely huge fluffy St. Bernard who escorted me half the length of my bisse walk from the tourist office to Planchouet. Much more a ‘granny trail‘ I thought, being an hour and a bit along level pathways. For those with families, I suggest the engaging qualities of trails and treasure hunts devised by the local tourist board.

With my new-found confidence of getting up mountains by whatever means, I took a cable car up to Tracouet, a spot where the meadows have lovely wild flowers and butterflies flitter. It offers a variety of walks and bike rides. What a great day I ended up having high up in the mountains. Calming, healthy, restorative, invigorating, perfect for kids with expanse and activities. For me it offered the complete unplug and a proper chance for real relaxation.

And watching these mountain dwellers is very infectious. They are unbelievably fit and healthy. I met two people who as a matter of course would be awake at 5am to climb 2,000 feet to the top of a peak before roller skiing back down to start their working day. I took my own exercise, a romantic walk from my chalet down the piste (before a challenging walk back up) to Restaurant Les Etagnes. It’s well-positioned at the bottom of the slopes for all the après-ski crowd and it’s where I had a wonderfully healthy and hearty dinner courtesy of the manager, Onno, one of those impressive dawn raiders.

Next I visited Interlaken and came back to German tongues. It’s easy to see why this tourist resort is so popular: it is uniquely positioned between two of the great mountains – the Eiger and the Jungfrau – and two of the larger Swiss lakes – the Brienzersee and Thunersee. But the real delight of Interlaken is its ‘glacier milk’. This beautiful aquamarine channel of water unites the two lakes and is so stunning it deserves the following explanation. When temperatures warm up during the summer the snow on the Alps begins to melt and cascade to meet tiny particles of rock. It results in a green, cloudy appearance by the time it enters the rivers and streams and hence the name ‘glacier milk’, a type of blue that I had only ever witnessed in the seas of the South Pacific.

My final resting spot was at Interlaken’s foremost hotel, the Victoria-Jungfrau Grand Hotel & Spa situated on Höheweg, the main street catering for tourists, and opposite the hotel there’s an open expanse used for parades and festivals as well as a landing spot for paragliders. I just missed the ‘Strong Man’ contest but luckily managed to tune in to the renditions of the eight foot long Alpenhorns blown by locals in traditional dress who released a long deep boom that connected for me, in a sublime way, the Alps with the stunning sonorous musicality of Beethoven, Mahler and Wagner. And all beneath the impressive snow-clad Jungfrau mountain itself.

Behind the hotel is the authentic part of the town with shops selling wooden carvings and model railways and it was here that I took another train for my final homeward journey. The national train service epitomises all that is Swiss: clean, punctual and stylish with the sophisticated delivery of china cups of coffee in the restaurant cars, vital in connecting people across the intransigence of the Alps. A wonderfully polite ticket collector reassured me of the time and route which snaked at a enjoyable pace along the picturesque valleys. So stress-free and so much better than hiring a car.

I got to appreciate how the Alps form the backbone of Europe and to see the fairytale charm of the farm buildings among the patchwork of pasture and tilled land. It’s all green and abundant. The Swiss literally carve out their existence from the Alps. They also have developed robust, healthy, grounded, non-showy, undramatic characteristics. All formed, it seems to me, by the environment.

“Switzerland Gets Nature,” insisted the lengthy poster on the red pristine airport bus. And it’s true; the hills are as alive as ever. Not only is it the same sun that shines on the Mediterranean beaches as on the Swiss Alps but, instead of trash, crowds, traffic and hassle, there is the stark contrast of the silence, space and relaxation of Europe’s highest mountains. I had unquestionably reached the conclusion as to which of the two holidays was the more restorative.


Adam Jacot de Boinod worked on the first series of the BBC panel game QI for Stephen Fry. He is a British author having written three books about unusual words with Penguin Press.