Switzerland's smaller cities: A treasure trove for travellers

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The Independent Travel

Discovering hidden depths is always a delicious surprise, and in Switzerland that treat can be wonderfully drawn out. The national icons of lakes and mountains, resorts and big cities are - like emblems everywhere - justly celebrated. But put together a grand tour focusing on only the smaller cities and you can feast on everything from ancient history to modern art, with plenty more wonders along the way.

Given that every Swiss city is served by rail, and the stress-free nature of travel by train in Switzerland, make the circuit by rail; Basel's handsome Hauptbahnhof is a fine place to start, since the city has plenty of air links from Britain plus an excellent rail connection from London Waterloo via Paris.

The first frisson occurs at Winterthur station, where a special minibus should be waiting to whisk you away to a gently wooded hillside above the town - and one of the finest private collections of art in the world. The Oskar Reinhart Collection occupies a villa, Am Römerholz, which was audaciously and dramatically expanded a decade ago to show the 200 or so works at their most admirable.

The train ride along to St Gallen may remind you of Flanders rather than Europe's most mountainous major country. However, when you arrive, you are transported to Italy: the late baroque cathedral is both an individual masterpiece and the hub of an exquisite historic quarter that inevitably earned a place on Unesco's World Heritage list.

You graze the edge of Lake Constance and brush against Liechtenstein on the gently swerving ride down to Chur. The station itself is a modern masterpiece, and - with the bus station suspended above the tracks - the epitome of integrated transport. Besides being a transport hub, Chur has an alluring medieval core, where traffic is banished and your footsteps echo around public spaces that come in all manner of shapes softened by a dapple of muted colours.

The Postbus south across the San Bernadino pass takes a short, subterranean cut through the tunnel, and emerges into a different Switzerland. The landscape looks a little softer, the air warmer and the light more diffuse. As the road unwinds, the architecture becomes resolutely Italianate. At Bellinzona, you can get happily lost in a warren of lanes or pose and preen over a capuccino in a sunny piazza. Here, you must choose between Lugano, perched at the head of its own lake, and Locarno, presiding over Lake Maggiore. Get a taste of both: Lugano is more of a robust, working city, but when you arrive at the end of the line in Locarno, you immediately feel on holiday. In my view, this is the closest that Switzerland gets to a seaside resort.

Time to go west; you have a choice of routes, one looping through Italian territory, the other a spectacular ride via Andermatt and the line of the Glacier Express. Sitting prettily astride the Rhône, your target is Sion. Switzerland's first recognised settlement was established here around 3500BC. More recent human activity is evident in the pair of hilltop castles that provide excellent views of the city.

Sion's smaller, younger sister is Sierre, a conglomeration of chateaux. The most fortress-like is the beefy 16th-century Château des Vidames, while the Château de Villa is more the sort of place you might wish to live. Visit the Vine and Wine Museum of Valais that it houses, and consider the Vinepath to the main site in the hinterland of Sierre.

The railway races the river as the watercourse broadens, swings north and eventually spills into Lake Geneva. Along the shore, Montreux has a claim to the highest concentration of culture in Switzerland: Stravinsky and Hans Christian Andersen both worked here and 21st-century festivals celebrate television, jazz and classical music. With a sublime lakeside setting, a compact and complex old town, and the sensational rack railway up to Rochers-de-Naye, this city alone merits a long weekend.

For a great Lake Geneva stay, though, combine Montreux with Lausanne. The railway runs parallel to the shore, about a mile inland. It slices between the higher parts of town, where the oldest quarters tug at the skirts of the chateau and cathedral. The city centre comprises a jumble of hills and a tangle of walkways. Among the many pleasant open-air locations, the Café Theâtre is an excellent place to sample the wines of the region while you admire the jumble of roofs that tumbles towards the lake.

There are trains to dozens of desirable destinations from Lausanne, but to continue the city circuit you should head north. Yverdon-les-Bains, at the south-west end of Lake Neuchâtel, is a prim resort just made for morning café-au-lait or an evening aperitif. Beyond the hills rolling down to the shore lies La Chaux-de-Fonds. By now, you will have realised that the family of Swiss cities has extraordinary diversity; La Chaux-de-Fonds is barely two centuries old (after a catastrophic fire), and has a pair of famous sons: Louis Chevrolet and the architect Le Corbusier (an early masterpiece, Villa Blanche, is well worth inspecting). La Chaux-de-Fonds is also the heart of "Watch Valley", and helps maintain chronological correctness across Switzerland and the world; see below for the very precise opening hours for Villa Blanche, and see the rail timetable back to Basel to try to make the most of every second of your intercity circuit.


La Chaux-de-Fonds: Villa Blanche, Chemin de Pouillerel 12 ( www.villa-blanche.ch), open 10am-5pm on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, admission Sfr10 (£4).

Sierre: Vine and Wine Museum of Valais, Sierre and Salgesch (00 41 27 456 45 25; www.museevalaisanduvin.ch), open 2-5pm from Tuesday to Friday, between April and November. Admission to the Sierre site, and the Vinepath, is free; the Salgesch museum has an admission fee of Sfr5 (£2).

Winterthur: Oskar Reinhart Collection, Haldenstrasse 95 (00 41 52 269 27 40; www.roemerholz.ch). Open 10am-5pm daily except Mondays; late opening to 8pm on Wednesdays. Admission Sfr12 (£5). The dedicated minibus costs Sfr5 (£2) return, and leaves the station at 15 minutes to each hour.