So there I was, starved to travel during two terrible years of the pandemic and desperate to see the world again. I had only traveled to Britain during the Great Plague, and even then with caution.
This year I wanted freedom and a summer of adventure. I didn’t just want to sit by a pool in the Mediterranean, relax with cocktails and books – I really wanted to see the world and, above all, do my bit for the Scottish economy too if I could.
So I found the perfect solution: a grand tour around the Italian lakes and the Swiss Alps – à la Lord Byron – with a local tailor-made tour operator.
Edinburgh company Rabbie’s arranged a six day getaway for me, with personal driver and guide – and I had perhaps the best holiday of my life. The tour started from Milan, so we built a weekend in this beautiful and cool Renaissance city on either side of our vacation.
My wife and I were in the safe and charming hands of Christina, our guide, and Giancarlo, our driver.
Both were knowledgeable, good company and – most importantly – there to make sure a rather complex trip through Europe’s most beautiful scenery went smoothly. Planning? Not for me. It was their job. I just had to have fun.
The first day we headed to Lake Como. If you haven’t seen the Italian lakes, they are breathtaking, framed by mountains and with water as clear as the sky is blue. We had lunch in the quaint little town of Lenno, then headed to Lugano and took the mountainside funicular to admire the frescoes in the Church of Santa Maria degli Angioli. The night was spent in the Swiss town of Locarno at the tip of Lake Maggiore.
The hotel was a gem – family owned, filled with unique local art and smart appliances, and with a staff that would do just about anything for you.
We had some of the best meals on the tour here – ossobuco with the local polenta, as we were in the Italian part of Switzerland, and gnocchi with wild boar.
Half the fun of Switzerland is that you’ll find yourself in the French part one day, and German or Italian the next. So if you have a few languages and like to try them out, it’s a delight for a visiting linguist.
Second day and we are in Stresa. If you have been to Nice, you will immediately feel at home. This is the Riviera at its best. The highlight here was a boat trip to Isola Bella – a small island in the bay filled with its own medieval castle and elegant topiary gardens.
Watch out for the spooky puppets in the basement of the castle if you go – for fans of the weird, they’re not to be missed. For lunch, try a picnic in the beautiful gardens of nearby Varese, home of playwright Dario Fo.
By the way, this tour was almost designed for lovers of literature, because almost every city on the route is connected with an outstanding writer.
On the morning of the third day we headed for the Alps, across the Simplon Pass – a wild and rugged part of the world, where Napoleon marched his Grande Armée into Italy, as you will notice from the statue of his eagle imperial still perched on the rocks. It has been a key stop for European travelers since the Stone Age.
We jumped out of our coach and took the train to car-free Zermatt at the foot of the Matterhorn on a perfect summer afternoon.
If a Hollywood producer demanded a postcard Swiss village, then Zermatt is what the set designer would create. Be careful if you fancy an ice cream to cool off as it will come with a double glass of schnapps poured over the top, so I got a little sleepy on the trip to Lausanne.
We spent two nights in this elegant town on the shores of Lake Geneva in a rather swanky hotel which served the best Negronis I had had since Milan.
Day four probably stood out for me as the highlight of the trip. After a short visit to the artisans who make the famous cheese, we went to Gruyères, where the air smelled of thyme and lavender.
This town was even prettier, even more picturesque than Zermatt. For fans of the weird, take a trip to the nearby HR Giger Museum, dedicated to Hieronymus Bosch, most famous for designing the space monster in Ridley Scott’s Alien. Be warned – it’s really for adults only, though.
Lunch that day was in glamorous Gstaad – the home of the jet set. We went to the complete Swiss: rösti potatoes with ham, fried eggs and cheese, then raclette cheese, followed by cheese fondue (Switzerland is really for cheese lovers) and lots of wine. Swiss whites are a revelation. We have to start importing.
Later we explored Chillon Castle near Montreux. I reached full literary nerd mode when I found Lord Byron’s signature carved into the walls of the dungeon. The castle inspired one of his most famous poems, the Prisoner of Chillon.
The fifth day was a hymn to nature. We traveled to the towns of Lauterbrunnen and Mürren at the top of Europe – where the Eiger touches the sky – and had lunch with a view of the glaciers in front of us and paragliders suspended in the sky hundreds of meters below our feet.
What we saw here was so beautiful that fellow travelers actually wept at the majesty of the mountains. I wasn’t too far behind, if I’m honest. If I could, I would live here forever.
We spent the night in Interlaken – a city literally between two lakes, nestled in the mountains.
Head to the old town here and try some great traditional Swiss cuisine as the milky rivers flow past your restaurant terrace, filled with the rich silt of meltwater from the glaciers.
Finally, we traveled to William Tell country and the town of Aldorf – don’t miss the local cakes – and through the rolling beauty of the Unesco Biosphere in Entlebuch, before a farewell evening in the pretty Bellinzona.
Then back to Milan for some downtime before our return journey. The adventure may be over but the magic remains.
RABBIE’S Travel started as a sole proprietorship in 1993 owned and run by Robin Worsnop who took adventurers across Scotland. Today the company is full of awards, has a fleet of nearly 100 luxury touring coaches and operates across Britain and Ireland, as well as France, Italy, Spain, Portugal and in Switzerland.
This summer alone, Piper, the biggest investor specializing in consumer brands, pumped £7m into Rabbie’s because it is a market leader in off-the-beaten-track channels.
Tours can accommodate up to 16 people, but on our trip there were only seven, plus the guide and driver. Everyone had plenty of space and privacy. Make friends if you want or stay alone. It’s yours.
Importantly, in these turbulent times for the travel industry, tours will still depart even if only one person books – so you’re guaranteed an unmissable adventure. Find them here: https://www.rabbies.com/fr