A Journey Through Switzerland’s Alpes Vaudoises Region
Written by Ebba Forsgren // Photography by Grace Taylorson Smith Pritchard
Produced in partnership with Switzerland Tourism
One particular carriage on one of the trains going into Vaud just happened to stop right in front of me on the platform, and it caught my eye. Amongst a line of regular train carriages, this looked like the Hogwarts Express.
Mountains are where I feel most at home. I grew up in the Swedish mountains, skiing five days a week – at a very high level until I was 16, when I moved away to the city. Living in nature was my normal and the outdoors was my default. In a small community with a passionate outdoor bubble, I was used to being around people who felt the same way, and so when people asked me ‘What is it like to grow up in the mountains?’ I found it difficult to answer. But now, with broader experience and different perspectives, I don’t take it for granted.
I still spend every moment I can in the mountains. It’s an everyday necessity, like eating and drinking, but one that I take with great pleasure and appreciation. So, when I visit a new mountain area – or just refresh my acquaintance with one I have known all my life – I try to experience everything I can, be honest and open, even to the activities that I know I find challenging or scary. It’s with this sense of rising excitement that I made my way to the Vaud Alps in Switzerland.
After four hours and five train transfers from the airport I was tired, but as I boarded the Hogwarts Express carriage my mood improved. It was empty. The darkness inside, hugging the windows, made me feel cosy and comfortable – like my own little rolling living room, and all of a sudden I almost didn’t want my long travel day all the way from Sweden to end. As I got off at my station in Château-d’Œx, I glanced back at the carriage and read the words ‘La Belle Epoque’ painted on the side. This train ride set the tone for my upcoming three days in this magical region.
I woke to clear skies. Arriving late last night, I didn’t get to see the rocky pinnacles of the Alps, but saving the first glance until the morning just delayed the gratification. So I peeked out the window as I had three cups of coffee and a massive pile of hotel breakfast.
First thing on the agenda was a walk around town, followed by a river crossing to get to a waterfall. Since the next three days were going to be filled with adrenaline, it was nice to get a mellow start to my time in the Vaud Alps – a welcome reminder that the mountains always have something to offer.
The itinerary then said canyoning. It wasn’t until we got to the place where we were going to change and meet our guide that I realised something: this particular form of canyoning does not involve a boat or other vehicle. You are the vehicle. Gearing up, I realised that this is a great way to feel like your clumsiest (but also most indestructible) self, due to the thick layers of wetsuits and life jackets. In my armour I zip lined my way into a pond of bright turquoise water, jumping off while I was going full speed. It felt like the perfect way to embrace the ‘experience everything’ ethos of this trip.
From this point on I was hooked. Throwing myself into waterfalls, squeezing myself between rocks, and cruising with the river I travelled down La Sarine until my fingers were pruney and my stomach screamed for dinner. But first I had to ease myself out of the full body suit – a workout all on its own.
On the way to the next village, I ate my emergency snacks – which I never go anywhere without, a lesson learnt through a lifetime in the mountains – and put my head against the window to absorb the afternoon sun. I think I dozed off, because all of a sudden we pulled up to our next hotel in Leysin. Because I’d had my eyes shut, I hadn’t expected the breathtaking view when crossing the lobby – the hotel is actually situated on a hillside. The wooden interior, the classic Switzerland chalet vibes, and the slight smell of cheese fondue formed a welcoming cocoon after the first somewhat chilly autumn day. I spotted a hot tub on the balcony that (of course) I immediately threw myself into, although with less force than my previous zip-line jump – there were other guests, after all.
I woke up to another sunny day and another hotel breakfast. With a belly full of Bircher muesli (my favourite Alpine breakfast), we headed up into the mountains for a hike. Our crew hiked in silence, accompanied by the meditative sound of four pairs of lungs breathing heavily – and the occasional sigh when someone stopped to take in the view. Eventually those sighs increased in frequency and degree of appreciation as the views kept levelling up with every step. Oh yes, I thought – I’m back in the mountains where I belong.
Finally we reached the summit, and my first reaction was ‘There’s the ocean!’ But clearly we cannot see the ocean from the middle of the Alps. My brain wasn’t prepared for the hugeness of Lake Geneva and my eyes played tricks on me. Euphoria filled my body and mind. It’s a feeling that never gets old.
Oh yes, I thought – I’m back in the mountains where I belong.
The only thing better than reaching a peak is knowing that food is close. We lunched at Kuklos revolving restaurant, and it is just what it sounds like: a restaurant that revolves 360° in the heights of Leysin. At first you can’t really tell that you’re spinning – the rotation is super slow. I only noticed it after putting my backpack in a window next to us and realising 10 minutes later that it had travelled to the neighbouring table. We all had a good laugh, a great lunch, and then it was time to fly.
Out of all the experiences in the mountains I love so well, paragliding is something that I feel I have neglected. I had been paragliding before, and even have a license for it, but it had been five years. Although I wouldn’t trust myself with my life after such a gap, I felt very safe, and without a trace of nerves, hopping into a harness attached to a guide who does this every day.
For me, paragliding is not about adrenaline, but it is one of the most thrilling things I know. If I could have a superpower, it would be the ability to fly – and this is the closest I can get to that. So, cruising amongst (and inside!) the clouds, up at the level of the mountains themselves but seeing them from a totally different perspective, we found pillars of warm air and climbed higher and higher before eventually dropping down towards the valley.
My guide asked me, ‘Do you wanna go for a little spin?’ and I replied: ‘Heck yeah, I do!’ Here’s where the adrenaline came in. He hauled down on one of the handles, leading the parachute to turn. This makes us spin – fast. It was like being in a washing machine, hurled about by forces I’m not sure humans are supposed to feel (more about that in a second). I laughed hysterically and screamed of stoke during our whole acrobatic segment – there’s video evidence of this, and it is not charming, but quite entertaining. I can’t even explain how fun it was, but my stomach didn’t agree. The turbo-gliding left me sitting on the ground for a good 30 minutes after landing, trying to recover and not to throw up. Airsick, still grinning like an idiot, and overwhelmed.
The day wasn’t over yet. Shortly after recovery it was time to come face to face with my worst frenemy: the bike. My relationship with this vehicle has evolved a lot over the years. Growing up in a ski town, I used to do a lot of downhill biking in the summer when the ski slopes turned into a bike park. But after countless wipeouts I sold my bike and saved the slopes for winter. Since then, I’ve been mountain biking maybe once every year, and this was going to be my premiere for the summer.
Nerve-wracked, Jenny and I hopped on the chair that took us up the mountain. Thank God for her – she made me feel not only safe but like I could do this well. Which is definitely not true, but I hit the trails knowing that she and the team were supporting me. When I’m actually on the bike on the trails, it surprises me how fun this sport actually is every time. I think I let everything around it – getting geared up, lifting the bike up on the chair lift – take up so much of my focus, and then I forget that when I’m performing the sport I really enjoy it. At least until I hit a sketchy part of the trail where all my confidence evaporates and I end up riding like an old lady.
I wish I had the zero-consequence mindset that I’d had when I biked as a kid. Well, actually I don’t, because I don’t miss those bruises.
I woke at our final hotel in Les Diablerets to the soundtrack of Switzerland: cowbells setting the vibes for another great day. First up on our schedule was trail running, so we headed up to a green lake nice and early. The sun rose and I turned my face towards the warm rays as the true Scandinavian I am. On my jog around the lake I got intercepted by the source of the soundtrack: cows were blocking my way. One could say I got cow blocked. We greeted each other with smiles and tail flaps, in mutual understanding about morning traffic. The serene morning run felt like a balm after yesterday’s high adrenaline – a reminder that mountains, for me, are all about the variety of everyday adventure.
The run ended at a mountain hut where I had an incredible mushroom pastry for lunch, in between the mandatory Swiss starter and dessert. After a quick nap in the sun, followed by a double espresso, we went to pick up our bikes again. But this time our bikes were equipped with electric batteries. Some say that e-biking is cheating – I say this invention is God’s gift to humanity. The speed that can be achieved by what seems to be nothing more than the force of your own two legs is fun as hell. On our half-a-horse-power vehicles we quickly reached the base of some amazing mountains, and there we rolled up and down on trails, squeezing every gram of enjoyment out of the day. Well, at least until my butt started to hurt from two days on a saddle in a row for the first time this year.
Shortly after recovery it was time to come face to face with my worst frenemy: the bike.
Everything I experienced in the Vaud Alps made me reflect on my life in the mountains and the unique perspective I’ve gained along the way. Until I left the mountains at 16, I couldn’t see how special it is to be amongst them. Now, living in the mountains once more, I will never take them for granted again. That makes every day I can spend in the high places special.
These three days were no exception. I came on this trip with few expectations. I didn’t even realise what canyoning was and I had never been to Vaud before. Sometimes I think that’s the best way to experience something – you just get thrown into situations, you are forced to adapt, and it can be a hit or it can be a miss. I think you can guess which applied today.
With a belly filled with cheese I hopped on the train back to the airport. Sadly, I didn’t get to ride in my special ‘La Belle Epoque’ carriage again, but that’s OK. The post-adventure feeling – the best possible version of fatigue – is so much better. Thank you, Vaud, for giving me three new days in the mountains and the canyons that I will never take for granted.
Written by Ebba Forsgren // @ebbaforsgren
Photography by Grace Taylorson Smith Pritchard // @grace.t.s.p
Film by Summit Fever Media // @sfm_films
Produced in partnership with Switzerland Tourism and Vaud // Alpes Vaudoises