SWITZERLAND : Weekend in Gstaad and in the Vaudois Alps
A three day weekend in view! Looking for a change of scenery and fresh air? So why not Switzerland, the Vaudois Alps and a detour to Gstaad! Scenery above all known for its winter wonderland atmosphere but which is also splendid in spring. Peacefulness ensured. This 56 miles round trip can easily be done in one day, but to fully enjoy it we recommend two days.
Direction Geneva and the region of Lake Geneva near where the Vaudois Alps are to be found (French Switzerland). It would be nice to take our time along the shores of the lake, stopping in Lausanne, Montreux, and Chillon, etc. Perhaps on the way back? For the moment we are eager to start tackling the summits. We’ll therefore head directly for Aigle by the motorways A1 and then A9.
From Aigle to Pillon Pass
Aigle, the ideal departure point for our round trip in the Vaudois Alps, is located in the plain at the eastern tip of Lake Geneva. A few fine streets are to be seen here, including the picturesque Rue de Jérusalem, which is narrow and lined with old houses inter-connected by covered footbridges. But our favourite visit here is Aigle castle which stands guard in the middle of the vineyards in a magnificent mountain setting. This ancient Savoyard castle (13th – 15th centuries) today houses the Musée de la vigne et du vin (Vine and wine museum). It has become a kind of emblem of the surrounding Chablais vineyards which are dominated to 80% by a single type of vine, chasselas, whose grapes can reach exceptional maturity near Aigle and Yvorne, leading to intensely mineral wines.
Leave Aigle by road 11 towards Leysin.
Very soon the slope becomes steep with many sharp bends: for a few miles you cross vineyards on steep hillsides, then there are narrow, wooded gorges. Open the windows to inhale the smell of hay, forest undergrowth, mushrooms, larches, spruces, and hear the chirping of crickets and tinkling of cowbells...
Approximately 7 miles after Aigle, nearing Le Sepey, turn left towards Leysin. For approximately 3 miles you then drive along a very windy road with an 11% slope in parts. Here we are in Leysin: this little resort, at an altitude of 1,300 m, has an exceptional amount of sunshine and a very fine panorama but, for an even more spectacular view, take the gondola lift to the Berneuse summit at an altitude of 2,048 m. From there you have a sweeping view over the Rhône valley, Lake Geneva, the Dents du Midi and, further afield, the Eiger, Cernin and Mont-Blanc. The ‘must-do’ is of course to have lunch at the Kuklos, a unique rotating restaurant (there are only three of its kind worldwide) which turns 360° in 1 h 30 min.
Leysin is a cul-de-sac, so you have to make a U-turn and go back down to Le Sepey before climbing again and then descending to Les Diablerets. This is a road full of the unexpected, which twists and turns at the bottom of the Vallée des Ormonts in a magnificent decor of high mountain pastures, wooded slopes and sparkling summits. Drive carefully all the same! Even though you’re in the high mountains, the roads are very busy… and not only with cars: you’ll cross many bikers (especially Swiss and German) having a marvellous time and columns of cyclists and hikers having more of a struggle.
You now drive down to Les Diablerets whose chalets are scattered at the foot of an impressive mountain cirque. While this family ski resort is not as prestigious as the sophisticated Gstaad, it can however boast an impressive crown of summits: Diablerets (3,209 m), Culan (2,789 m), Scex Rouge (2,970 m)… The skiable area is equally impressive and spreads over three mountain ranges, so you can ski all the way to Villar-sur-Ollon without taking your skis off. A destination to remember for winter!
The road to Gstaad then continues via Pillon Pass at an altitude of 1,546 m, more than 400 m higher than Les Diablerets. Once you’ve reached the pass, stop for a while. Park at the foot of the cable-car which will take you to the Diablerets glacier (Glacier 3,000) one of the biggest in Switzerland and the highest point of the Vaudois Alps and the Saanenland. Here again, there is an unrestricted outlook over the most beautiful summits of the Alps and, for those who want action and not contemplation, the glacier offers many activities: hiking, via ferrata, snowpark, husky sleighs, summer skiing… There are several possibilities of having a meal on the spot, including a gastronomic restaurant designed by the architect Mario Botta.
Back at Pillon Pass, you can descend by foot via a narrow mountain path to Lac du Retaud (approx. 1 mile), which you will have seen when coming back down in the cable-car: splendid verdant waters at the foot of high mountain pastures.
Gstaad and Saanenland
Having gone past Pillon Pass, you start a long descent to Gstaad. The scenery becomes more open, the valleys wider and the mountains less steep. You also change language zone, since you pass from the Vaudois Alps, a French-speaking region, to the Saanenland, which is German-speaking.
This is real countryside: Saanenland has as many cows as inhabitants! Apart from that you’ll not notice any major change on reaching Gsteig, 15 minutes from Les Diablerets. The housing is roughly the same—the quintessential Swiss chalet. Gsteig is worth a short stop, particularly on account of its listed Gothic church.
From Gsteig to Gstaad is a 6 mile drive across an exceptionally serene, majestic valley: it’s as if you were in a Milka chocolate advert.
The jewel of this valley is of course the highly renowned Gstaad. While the village cannot entirely shake off its chic mountain ambience (the luxurious Palace Hotel dominating the village with its neogothic turrets is a permanent reminder to us that we are in a special place), you won’t find excessive snobbism here, apart from during the winter season.
Go for a relaxed stroll through the pedestrianised centre with its big chalets with highly decorated facades. There are antique dealers, the occasional interior decoration boutique, and a few prestigious brands (Cartier, Davidoff…), but you’ll also find many café terraces where ordinary mortals can enjoy a modest beer.
An emblematic venue in Gstaad is the Chesey, where you can enjoy excellent cuisine in a very smart Alpine decor. On the menu of this Michelin-starred restaurant there are fresh morels with gnocchis with wild garlic, Saanenland veal fillet with fresh morels, Saanenland young goat delicacies...
Saanen, which is so close to Gstaad that it can almost be considered as its suburb, has been eclipsed by its sparkling neighbour whereas it lends its name to the region. Less glamorous, Saanen nevertheless has more character with superb, imposing wooden houses along the main road, some of which date back to the 16th century. It also has a 15th century church famous for its chamber music concerts organised by Yehudi Menuhin. A bust of the musician is to be seen in the town centre.
The pays-d'Enhaut area
Leave Saanen by road 11 which crosses several times the railway line, railways being a highly used means of transport in Switzerland and trains being a typical part of the scenery.
Slightly before Rougemont, you’ll again enter the Vaudois Alps and more specifically the Pays-d’Enhaut area, French-speaking territory. With its old church (11th century), castle (16th century), flower-decked chalets and the splashing water of its little fountain in front of the baker’s, Rougemont is a hymn to pastoral life… The Swiss way of life in a nutshell… At least that’s how us unfortunate foreigners imagine it. Mention should also be made of the fact that Princess Diana went to finishing school here from 1976 to 1978.
After fifteen or so minutes of a quite gradual descent, you’ll reach Château-d’Oex dominated by a little hill topped by the local church. But the real centre of interest in Château-d’Oex is elsewhere, in the Musée du Vieux Pays-d’Enhaut, which presents the area’s history and popular traditions. The Chalet de l’Etambeau, an annex of the museum, has the immense advantage of housing a cheese cellar and sells various regional specialities.
If you had already heard of Château-d’Oex, it’s nevertheless probably for something else than its cheeses. This small locality, which is the Mecca of the ballooning community, was the setting of a new record in 1999: on board the Breitling Orbiter 3, a monster of technology, the Swiss Bertrand Piccard and the Brit Brian Jones took off for the first round-the-world journey by balloon.
Beginning to get bored? Be patient! Just after Château-d’Oex, you’ll be back on real, tough mountain roads. Take the direction of Gorges du Pissot. Turn left, continuing along road 11 which twists and turns half way up this deep cut in the earth’s crust. A panoramic viewpoint allows you to admire the sheer drop of the cliff. Don’t miss such a blood-chilling sight.
On leaving the gorges you reach a peaceful valley: the Etivaz. Here, one of the best mountain pasture cheeses is made—the first to have obtained a registered designation of origin in Switzerland. This cheese is made from raw milk heated over a wood fire in large copper cauldrons and then left to mature for 6 to 12 months. The result is a hard cheese with a fruity taste and aromas of hazelnut and Alpine flowers. It also comes in the form of shavings, ‘Rebibes’. If you haven’t had the opportunity to taste it in a restaurant, sample it at the Maison de l’Etivaz (the producers’ cooperative).
Now for the last part of the trip: just 16 miles to return to the departure point Aigle. You’ll climb up La Lécherette, cross Mosses Pass (altitude 1,445 m), and then descend for quite a long time into the Vallée des Ormonts. The road is sometimes uneven, but there are fine curves and bends… Enjoy yourself all the way to Aigle.
While there are no tolls on the Swiss motorway network, you nevertheless have to pay for a sticker that you must display on your windscreen. It is valid for a calendar year and can be bought from the customs posts at the borders, from postoffices and from petrol stations and railway stations.
Photos Eric Boucher / Michelin