The world's most beautiful country from the air
Get a bird's-eye view of what is arguably the world's most beautiful country on this hot air balloon trip from Switzerland's Chateau-dâOex region. Video: Craig Platt
There are moments when the Swiss let you in, when their guard drops, when their true nature shines. These are the moments when a people who can sometimes seem a little reserved cut loose and have fun, when they shed the bounds of their everyday Swissness.
I've seen it before on the banks of the Aare River in Bern, where people sat around on the grass barbecuing and drinking in the late-evening sun, celebrating the end of a long day hiking up the river and then floating back down in inflatable boats and lilos, just having a good time, doing something simple and natural and fun
I've seen it, too, on a high alp in the Emmental region during a wrestling meet, an event held in the great outdoors surrounded by almost impossible natural beauty. The Swiss have their own brand of wrestling, a sport called "schwingen" that's a favourite among farmers and other country folk, and a schwingen meet means a long day of chatting, laughing, drinking beer and eating sausages and watching the action on a sawdust-covered stage.
I've seen the Swiss at their best, too, at the Lauberhorn downhill race, the most famous ski race in the country, an event that people flock to from around the nation to see skiers careen down a mountain near the chalet town of Wengen, to eat raclette and sing songs and dress up and have fun. They have "guggenmusik" there – marching bands that dress flamboyantly, drink heroically, play traditional instruments and do cover versions of American pop songs. They have shots of Jagermeister. There's a huge after-party back in town.
It's moments like these that you realise something about Switzerland. Yes, it's beautiful – it's probably the most beautiful country on the entire planet. Switzerland really is just a long series of postcard-perfect vistas, towering snow-capped mountain peaks and lush green valleys, flawless lake after flawless lake, villages of old wooden chalets, pristine cities where nothing is too big or overbearing. Plus, everything works in Switzerland. Everything is safe and easy and calm.
But that's not all there is to it. It's the moments like those on the banks of the Aare, in the hills of Emmental, on the slopes of Wengen, when you realise that Switzerland's greatness is as much about the people who live there as any of its natural or structural attractions. It's the culture that stretches far beyond cheese and chocolate or watches and banks. Switzerland is a place with obvious natural beauty, but it also has a far more subtle personal charm.
And that, for me, is what really makes it great.
This week Switzerland, unsurprisingly, was crowned No. 1 in the world in the US News Best Countries rankings, edging out Canada, Germany, Britain and Japan. Nations were judged on criteria such as how "friendly", "progressive", "entrepreneurial", "influential" and "affordable" they are. And really, in the case of Switzerland, you could only argue with the last one. It has everything else covered.
I've been to Switzerland probably 20, maybe 25 times. I've visited 12 of its 26 cantons. I've seen all of the seasons there. I've hiked, I've biked, I've eaten, I've drunk, I've explored. I used to lead tour groups through the Bernese Oberland. And even after all of that, I still love visiting. I still relish the chance to get over there and soak it up.
There's just such ease to travel in Switzerland. There's such enjoyment in so many things there: the hearty rosti lunches, the stunning views, the village atmosphere, the cobbled streets and the fairytale homes.
In some ways Roger Federer, the Swiss tennis champion, is the perfect embodiment of Swissness. He's nice, he's safe, and he's predictable. Nothing ever goes wrong with the Fed. There are no wild outbursts, no accusations of cheating or tomfoolery. He just does what he does, and he does it perfectly.
Switzerland is like that. The trains there run on time to the second. There's not a scrap of rubbish lying on any street. People treat you as they should, politely and respectfully. Houses are quaint and charming. Cowbells dong in exactly the right places.
All that is lovely – but still, it's not what's fun about Switzerland, it's not what keeps me going back. What's fun about Switzerland is finding the country's quirks and contours. It's discovering what this place is really about, what makes its people tick, what lies beneath its flawless facade.
It's discovering places like the Reitshule, an old riding stable in Bern that has morphed into an alternative arts centre, a haven of counter-culture in a country that can seem quite straight-laced. It's seeking out experiences like night sledding in Alpiglen, a tiny village in the mountains near Grindelwald, where you fill yourself with fondue and schnapps at a warm restaurant and then blast down a snow-covered toboggan track in the darkness, before grabbing a quick beer at the bottom and then taking a train back up to Alpiglen to do it all again.
It's finding the big events that make Switzerland unique, that bring out the best in its people, that allow you a window into their lives and their beliefs: the schwingen wrestling, the long afternoons on the Aare River, the carnival atmosphere at the ski races.
That's the Switzerland that's so much fun; that's the Switzerland I want to keep going back to. And that, for me, is the Switzerland that's the world's No. 1.
Have you been to Switzerland? What did you like about the country? Is there anything you disliked? Have you been to any big events?
See also: Twelve of the biggest travel myths