Tim Hughes gets a head for heights on the Grand Tour of Switzerland

"Did I ever tell you about the time I was climbing on the North Face of the Eiger?"

I know, I know... it sounds like the start of an extremely tall story, but, it's true. Honest.

I really was on the trickiest part of Europe's most notorious mountain – and I was climbing it.

Not all of it, you'll understand. Not even most of it. Just enough, though, to get a taste of the majesty of this forbidding 10,000 ft slab of rock – the highest and scariest in the Alps. And as well as soaking up the sweeping views, when I dared look down, I also gained a very deep respect for those hardy souls who have conquered this sentinel of the Bernese Oberland.

I owed my precarious position, clinging onto narrow flakes of rock, to a cracking bunch of lads who call themselves, quite reasonably, Eiger Vision.

Meeting up several hundred feet below, at the twee little railway station of Kleine Scheidegg, nestled among lush green meadows, below.

From there we took the Jungfraubahn, railway up to the Eiger, or, more accurately, to insider the Eiger, because the line follows a tunnel carved through the mountain itself. We embarked in darkness, waiting for the train to continue its way upwards, and followed the tunnel down to an opening onto the flanks of the peak, from where the world dropped terrifyingly away.

There can't be many mountaineering expeditions quite so accessible by rail. Indeed, the train takes visitors from the waterside resort town of Interlaken, all the way to the observatory on the 'yoke' of the Jungfrau – Jungfraujoch. At 3,454 metres above sea level, it is Europe's highest railway station, with 360 degree views across the heart of the Alps and beyond, from the Vosges in France to Germany's Black Forest.

None were more heart-pounding as those directly behind, and beneath, me, though, as I searched for hand and foot holds in the rock.

Caution – and respect – is deserved. In the past 80 years, more than 65 climbers have perished on the North Face ('Nordwand' in German), earning it the gloomy nickname: 'Mordwand' – or murder wall.

Highlighting that delightfully ridiculous proximity of easy travel and adventure, danger and luxury, wilderness and comfort, we rewarded our efforts with a civilised lunch at the foot of a glacier at Eigergletscher, followed by chocolate – freshly made as we watched – and a gentle descent to Kleine Scheidegg below, emerging from the shade of the North Face into bright sunshine, waterfalls and springy meadow, hopping across streams, paddling in an ice cold glacial lake and stopping for an endless succession of selfies with curious cows – all to a discordant symphony of clanking cattle bells.

Then it was back on the train –and on to Grindelwald – an almost too picture-perfect village perched on a valley side in the shadow of the bulk of those three titans – the Eiger ('Ogre') Jungfrau ('virgin') – and the pious Monch ('monk') keeping them apart.

The next day it was back on the train for another close up mountain experience – this time at the top of the Schilthorn, famous, to some at least, for its starring role in the James Bond Film On Her Majesty's Secret Service, the only one starring George Lazenby, who is still feted as a hero, inspiring a 007-themed exhibition just below the revolving restaurant which was financed by the shooting of the adventure classic.

Oxford Mail:

Take a boat across Lake Thun - destination Interlaken

The views from the top are, of course, eye-popping, but the journey up is no less stunning, taken by a a series of ever more stupendous cable cars from the Lauterbrunnen valley below. Worthy indeed of 007, though he'd probably prefer to ride on top  possibly while wrestling a rogue with metal teeth. Though that would be a different film, entirely.

Each cable car runs like clockwork, sticking fastidiously to the timetable, and allowing changes as tight as a St Bernard's brandy barrel. Even at almost 3,000m punctuality prevails.

The train is the best way to travel around Switzerland – a relatively small country but one packed with a continent's-worth of scenery, from those snow-capped (even in summer) peaks and glaciers to lazy rivers, vast lakes, ancient towns and thriving modern, but no-less lovely, cities.

Each trip presents a picturebook collage of castles, perfect villages, cow-studded pastures, waterfalls and always (even if in the distance) mountains.

To those looking to get the most out of their trip, the Swiss have put together an ingenious programme of recommended routes called, in a nod to the golden age of 18th century travel, the Grand Tour.

A circular route, linking Lausanne, on the shores of lake Geneva in the west, with Schaffhausen, beside the Rhine Falls in the north, chic St Moritz in the east and Lugano and Zermatt, beneath the Matterhorn, in the south

While aimed mainly at drivers, with routes following scenic roads between attractions, it also incorporates boat, funicular, cable car, and of course train.

The surprising thing about all these routes is how quickly the terrain changes.

Starting in the gorgeous city of Lausanne - home of the Olympic movement, and a plush museum dedicated to all things Olympian - and the equally must-see Collection de l'art brut ('Collection of Outsider Art') I caught a train along the snaking shoreline of Lake Geneva (known in these parts as Lac Léman).

It clings to the lakeside, affording glimpses of chocolate box-pretty villages, lavish resort hotels and distant snow-capped mountains. If you strain your eyes enough you'll also be able to make out the French spa town of Evian - home to the eponymous mineral water - on the opposite shore.

On it goes, through the Canton of Vaud, passing vineyards, some ribbon-thin, clutching the lakeside, and yielding some excellent wines (all consumed, fortunately for Swiss bon viveurs, locally, accounting for our total ignorance of Swiss vintages). 

Then it's the Montreux Riviera, with chic hotels and a casino, Byron's fairytale Château de Chillon (and a whisper of jazz on the air) and into the mountains, emerging an hour or so later in the heart of the Bernese Alps. 

There I took a cable car to Glacier 3000, Diablerets.

Oxford Mail:

Skywalk at Glacier 3000, Diablerets

It was the middle of summer, the ice was cool and the glare blinding.

I explored the summit, taking a steel suspension bridge over a dizzying precipice and raced a toboggan along a metal run - something like a mini roller coaster, without the loops but with no fewer whoops.

It was all tremendous fun; exciting but easy.

The view, as might be predicted, was glorious – reaching as far as Mont Blanc.

Soaking it up I felt a little guilty at not having earned the spectacle through sweat, peril and the use of ropes and crampons. But then this is Switzerland, and even in this land of wonderful extremes, effort comes in moderation – if that's the way you want it.

And relaxing with a glass of that chilled Vaud wine, I toasted the majesty of this extrordinary land - the biggest of little countries - and its Grand Tour.

Oxford Mail:

Golden age: Travel by boat on Lake Geneva from Lausanne, Vaud

The Grand Tour - a classic adventure for the modern traveller

From palm-lined lakeshores to sparkling glaciers, from medieval villages to buzzing cities – the Grand Tour of Switzerland packs in an incredible number of sights. The concentration of attractions is unrivalled worldwide.

The Grand Tour of Switzerland combines the highlights of Switzerland with a beautifully scenic route. Motorways on the Grand Tour are chiefly avoided and only taken when it makes traffic-sense. 

Highlights: 45 top attractions, twelve of which UNESCO World Heritage Sites and two biospheres

Lakes: 22 lakes larger than 0.5 square kilometers along the route

Recommended travel period: summer (April to October)


Core route: 1643 km (1021 miles)

Initial stretch Basel - Neuchâtel: 165 km

Initial stretch Geneva - Saint-George: 53 km

Initial stretch Chiasso - Bellinzona: 109 km

Highest point of the Grand Tour: Furka Pass, 2429 m above sea level

Lowest point of the Grand Tour: Lake Maggiore, 193 m above sea level

Recommended duration: 
With driving time of at least five hours a day, you are recommended to plan at least seven days to complete the core route. Depending on your entry point from the border, you may even need more time. The effective duration depends on whether you tend to speed along or make the journey at a leisurely pace to enjoy the many sights along the route. 

Signposts and direction of travel: 
The Grand Tour can be travelled in both directions, but Switzerland Tourism recommends you make the journey clockwise. This is especially true in cities with one-way streets - and for motorway access roads. Signposts along the route are limited to the clockwise direction of travel on the main route, and to access roads to the main route from abroad.

* For more details on the Grand Tour of Switzerland, and to plan your journey by car or public transport, go to grandtour.myswitzerland.com

* Enjoy stress-free travel by road, rail and waterway throughout Switzerland with the Swiss Travel System, with deals and fare reductions on mountain railways swisstravelsystem.com

*Take on the North Wall - or just parrt of it - with Eiger Vision. Trained climmbers will explain moutaineering techniques and even geology before giving you as much of a thrill as you want eigervision.ch