Through cobbled villages and fairy-tale landscapes, we enjoy one of the great European road trips
Can the Grand Tour of Switzerland touring route, launched this year by Switzerland Tourism, compare with other mythical roads – such as Route 66, California's Highway 1, or Australia's Great Ocean Drive?
Certainly that's the ambition of the Swiss, and this 1000km-plus route over some of Europe's most famous mountain passes and around some of its most beautiful lakes has much to recommend it. The scenery is stunning, the mountains are breathtaking, the culture is fascinating and the roads are immaculate.
We were lucky enough to secure an early preview of the Grand Tour route, and you can see the accompanying video here. Our part of the route took us from Davos to Locarno.
For our exploration of this particular section of the Grand Tour route – the south-east and Ticino, which borders northern Italy – the lovely people at Porsche loaned us the latest incarnation of their classic Targa which, with its absurdly brilliant but simple engineering, has to be one of the most exciting drives of this or any other year.
The Targa, of course, took to the climbs and the descents like a duck to water, only with less quacking. Fluelapass, Albulapass, Julierpass, the St Gotthard, and the San Bernadino – we reeled them off, one by one, until we dropped down to the still waters of Lago Maggiore and sleepy but charming Locarno, just a few kilometres from the Italian border.
From Locarno, we pootled on around the lake shore to Ascona's charming cobbled quayside, which suddenly felt less like Switzerland and a lot like Italy. The coffee at Bar 7, from where you can sit and watch the ferries come and go, probably had a lot to do with it. But then, a couple of hours driving time from Milan, that's probably only what you'd expect.
Even in just three days there was so much, both ancient and modern, to take in. From the vast Engadine valley, all chalets, cowbells and high meadows, overlooked by towering peaks, to the dizzying heights of Monte Tamaro and Mario Botta's modernist chapel, Switzerland, with its many languages and dialects, is a country of contrasts.
But where was it most typically Swiss? Perhaps over lunch at the Ristorante Ospizio, at the top of the San Bernardino, as we sampled a hearty menu based on cheese, cured ham, sausage and soup. Or maybe it was in the old village of Guarda, perched on a balcony of high altitude meadows overlooking the Engadine and surrounded by breathtaking vistas.
Guarda is both ancient and mystical, and extremely atmospheric. We eased the Targa up through the village's narrow streets and over the old cobbles, pulling up by the Hotel Meisser and enjoying a drink on its sun-drenched terrace.
And what of St Moritz, which has been celebrating 150 years of winter tourism, dating back to 1864? Did you know, for example, that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle once played in goal in an ice-hockey match between Davos and St Moritz?
The St Moritz story began late in 1864 when hotelier Johannes Badrutt bet some Brits that they would enjoy sunbathing on his terrace if they stayed through the winter. If that didn't come to pass, he said, he'd pay their travel costs. The English tourists stayed until Easter, returned home rested, fit and tanned, and a legend was born.
But, then, this part of Switzerland is a fresh-aired fairytale land of derring-do among towering peaks, of thousand-foot waterfalls and monumental romantic castles. Switzerland's Grand Tour captures all of this, and more.
*For more on the Swiss Grand Tour, visit MySwitzerland.com/grandtour