So there I was, starved of travel for two dreadful pandemic years, and desperate to see the world again. I’d only travelled in Britain during the great plague, and even then circumspectly.
This year I wanted freedom and a summer of adventure. I didn’t just want to sit by a pool in the Med, chilling out with cocktails and books – I wanted to really see the world, and, importantly, 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 Swiss Alps – à la Lord Byron – with a home-grown bespoke tour operator.
The Edinburgh company Rabbie’s fixed me up with a six-day jaunt, complete with personal driver and guide – and I may have had the best holiday of my life. The tour set off from Milan, so we built a weekend in that beautiful, cool renaissance city onto either side of our holiday.
My wife and I were in the safe and charming hands of Christina, our guide, and Giancarlo, our driver.
Both were effortlessly knowledgeable, great company and – crucially – there to ensure that a rather complex journey through the most beautiful landscapes in Europe went without a glitch. Planning? Not for me. That was their job. I just had to enjoy myself.
Day one saw us head to Lake Como. If you haven’t seen the Italian Lakes, they’re breathtaking, framed by mountains, and with water as clear as the sky is blue. We lunched in the quaint little town of Lenno, then wended our way to Lugano, and took the funicular up the mountainside to view the frescos of 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 devices, and with staff who’d do pretty much anything for you.
We had some of the best meals of 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 the German or Italian the next. So if you’ve a smattering of languages and enjoy trying them out, this is a delight for a pass-muster linguist.
Day two and we’re in Stresa. If you’ve been to Nice then you’ll feel instantly at home. It’s the Riviera in all its beauty. The highlight here was a boat journey to the Isola Bella – a tiny island in the bay replete with its own medieval castle and elegant topiaried gardens.
Watch out for the creepy puppets in the castle basement 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 the playwright Dario Fo.
Incidentally, this tour was almost designed for literary aficionados, as nearly every town on the itinerary is connected to some outstanding writer.
On the morning of day three, we headed up into the Alps, through the Simplon Pass – a wild and rugged part of the world, where Napoleon marched his Grande Armée into Italy, as you’ll note from the statue of his imperial eagle still perched on the rocks. This has been a key staging post for European travellers since the Stone Age.
We hopped off our coach and took the train to car-free Zermatt at the foot of the Matterhorn, on a perfect summer’s afternoon.
If a Hollywood producer demanded a picture-postcard Swiss village, then Zermatt is what the set designer would create. Watchout if you fancy an ice cream to cool down, though, as it’ll come with a double shot of schnapps poured over the top, so I was a little sleepy during the trip to Lausanne.
We spent two nights in this elegant city on the banks of Lake Geneva at a rather swish hotel which served the best Negronis I’d had since Milan.
Day four probably stood out for me as the highlight of the trip. After a little visit to the artisans who make the famous cheese, we travelled to Gruyères, where the air smelt of thyme and lavender.
This town was even prettier, even more quaint, than Zermatt. For fans of the weird, take a trip to the nearby HR Giger museum, dedicated to the latter-day Hieronymus Bosch most famous for designing the space monster in Ridley Scott’s Alien. Be warned – it really is for adults only.
Lunch that day was in glammed up Gstaad – home to the jet-set. We went the full Swiss: rösti potatoes with ham, fried eggs and cheese, then raclette cheese, followed by cheese fondue (Switzerland really is for cheese freaks) and plenty of wine. Swiss whites are a revelation. We need to start importing.
Later we explored Chillon Castle near Montreux. I reached full literary nerd mode when I found Lord Byron’s signature etched into the dungeon walls. The castle inspired one of his most famous poems, The Prisoner of Chillon.
Day five was a hymn to nature. We travelled to the towns of Lauterbrunnen and Mürren at the top of Europe – where the Eiger touches the sky – and had lunch with a vista of glaciers before us, and paragliders dangling in the sky hundreds of metres beneath our feet.
What we saw here was so beautiful, fellow travellers actually cried at the majesty of the mountains. I wasn’t too far behind, if I’m honest. If I could, I’d live here forever.
We spent the night in Interlaken – a town literally between two lakes, nestled in the mountains. Go to the old town here and try some great traditional Swiss food as the milky rivers run past your restaurant terrace, filled with the rich silt of glacial melt-waters.
Finally, we journeyed into William Tell country and the town of Aldorf – don’t miss the local cakes – and made our way through the rolling beauty of the UNESCO Biosphere at Entlebuch, before a goodbye evening in pretty Bellinzona.
Then back to Milan for some down time before our journey home. The adventure may be over but the magic remains.
Rabbie's Tours began in 1993 as a one-man outfit owned and run by Robin Worsnop, who took adventurers around Scotland. Today, the company drips with awards, has a fleet of nearly 100 luxury tour coaches and operates across Britain and Ireland, as well as Italy, Spain, Portugal and Switzerland.
Just this summer, Piper, the leading specialist investors in consumer brands, injected a hefty £7million in Rabbie’s, as it’s a market-leader in off-the-beaten track tours.
The tours can take up to 16 people, but on our trip there was just seven, plus the guide and driver. Everyone had plenty of space and privacy. Make friends if you want, or keep to yourself. It’s up to you.
Crucially, in these turbulent times for the travel industry, tours will still depart even if just one person books – so you’re guaranteed an unmissable adventure.