One of the best parts about living in Zurich is having the opportunity to visit the lesser-known, but equally spectacular, parts of the country. Early morning Sunday, we were on a fast intercity train heading west, to a French area of Switzerland called Val-de-Travers, with plans to hike up to the Creux du Van. It certainly didn’t have the name recognition of other popular mountain destinations, like the Matterhorn or Mont Blanc. In fact, when I mentioned wanting to hike it to a few local folks, they had never even heard of the place.
I didn’t notice the switch of the language during the station announcements, the scenery changes were too subtle and the train too quick, but by the time we arrived in Neuchâtel, there was no doubt about it - it was all French to me. A second regional train took us to the starting point of our hike, Noiraigue, a tiny farming town on the valley floor of the sub-alpine Jura mountains.
Unlike the other trails we’ve taken, this hike started right there at the station, no gondolas or chair lifts. The first thirty minutes were straight uphill, through a forest of pine trees and thick fog. It felt familiar, and I felt nostalgic. It reminded me so much of the beginning of the Dipsea Trail in the North Bay, the lush greenery, the low-level fog snaking through the trees, even the soft trail matted with mulch.
By the time we arrived in Neuchâtel, there was no doubt about it - it was all French to me.
Leveling out just for a moment at the Ferme Roberts, we started in on the notorious “14 contours,” fourteen switchbacks that wound us up and around the side of the mountain. It had stormed for the two days prior, and the rocks still felt slick and slimy. It was two hours of constant elevation gain, and this trail is marked as “Easy” on all the Swiss hiking boards. Needless to say, we were passed more than a few times by other hikers (but on this trail, we were greeted with a cheery “Bonjour” instead of the Swiss greeting “Grüezi!”). And then suddenly, you make your final fourteenth turn, the clouds burn off, and quite suddenly it’s there before you - the Creux du Van.
I’ve never seen anything like it before. A natural rocky amphitheater, shaped by thousands of years of wind and rain. It looks like one day, someone decided to reach down from the sky and scoop out the side of the earth. So different from what you come to expect from a typical Swiss hike, with their snow-capped mountain ranges and icy blue alpine lakes. Instead, the Creux du Van is this giant, gaping hole in the ground, sheer limestone cliffs shooting straight down 160 meters, and you are right there on the edge of it all. Photos can’t really capture the grandeur, the enormity, the vastness of the place - or at least, my iPhone couldn’t.
“We can mail it anywhere in the world,” he said. “And there’s a mailbox up here, too.”
A trail leads around the entire perimeter, cliffs on one side, a short stone wall on the other, to stop the grazing cows and sheep from wandering that one step too far. Raunaq and I worked our way around the edge, the view seeming to change ever so slightly, the sun exposing new crevices and different angles. As we arrived to the main side of the cliff, a young guy approached and handed us two pre-stamped postcards. “We can mail it anywhere in the world,” he said. “And there’s a mailbox up here, too.”
The descent was tougher. My knees are not what they used to be, so downhill is always a bit of a pain, literally. Raunaq finally convinced me to see the light of hiking poles, and those certainly help. But I still haven’t perfected the “Swiss descent,” and I tend to be slow and wobbly on my way down. Raunaq has many videos of this, if anyone cares to see what flailing hiking poles look like. The aforementioned slippery rocks made things even more difficult. I somehow didn’t take a terrific tumble, but I certainly had a few close calls. Slow and steady.
We passed the same farmhouse from the way up, now in full afternoon swing, with someone playing a jaunty 20s era-tune on the piano. Behind the house, the Creux du Van impressively loomed, giving us one last final view before we headed back down through the forest back to Noiraigue. We had a 6-minute window to catch the train on to Môtiers, and we sprinted with hiking boots and poles to catch it in the nick of time. On to absinthe!
The nickname for this area used to be “Pays de Fees,” Fairyland.
This entire region of Switzerland, Val-de-Travers, is the birthplace of absinthe. I had always romanticized absinthe, associated the green fairy with the bohemian artists and writers of Paris - James Joyce, Van Gogh, Hemingway, Oscar Wilde - and as such, assumed it originated in French. Not so, it turns out! It was produced here, in the canton on Neuchâtel until 1910, vilified and banned for nearly a century, and now is slowly making its revival.
A tiny town with a vibrant, if slightly crumbling, facade, Môtiers is home to the the “Maison de l’absinthe,” where we each tasted three different types. Absinthe is incredibly strong, up to 80% alcohol, so in order to enjoyable drink it, you dilute it with ice water and for certain varieties (the famed green type, for example), slowly dissolve a sugar cube on top. It turns a milky white color, and, we learned, you are meant to drink this before meals.
Diluted or not, that stuff is strong. Three small tastings a piece, and we were both a little buzzed. We took home a few bottles, with the full intention of becoming super classy Europeans and having absinthe aperitif before dinner.
The nickname for this area used to be “Pays de Fees,” Fairyland, and to me, that perfectly captures the regions’ aura of bohemias past. I kept forgetting we were still in Switzerland. 20 minutes from the border, but still in Switzerland. Everything felt completely different from our previous excursions - from the landscape to the architecture to the more-relaxed ease - it was all decidedly French. Another reminder that for a country as small as Switzerland, it can still surprise you.