I was what you might call a bookish child; happiest when browsing the local library or squirrelled away in my bedroom with a new series. The only thing that really enticed me into the countryside was my weekly horse-riding lesson so that I could pretend that I was Christina from Flambards or one of the Pony Club girls. Of course there were certain things I enjoyed about spending time outdoors: I was always happy to go for a walk along London’s embankment or, after I’d had my children, accompany them to a city park with as many coffee stands as playgrounds. However, three years ago we moved to the beautiful city of Basel in Switzerland.
Unlike London and Paris, where I’d lived previously, Basel is a small city, surrounded by countryside. On one of our first days in the city, we walked up to the pretty viewing platform at Munsterplatz, where the city’s cathedral sits in a tranquil cobbled square and I realised that even from point, in the very heart of the old town, I could see the city’s limits, where the buildings slowly gave way to fields and woods. It was the first time I’d ever lived within such easy reach of mountains and lakes, and although it took me a little while, I started to love our various ventures into the countryside. On my bi-weekly jogs, instead of running through suburban streets or crowded parks, I was running alongside tranquil rivers as cows, their neck bells clanging gently, chewed grass and watched me with rather bemused expressions.
I was already starting to fall in love with the countryside when the pandemic reached Switzerland in March 2020. Suddenly as shops, restaurants and museums closed, we took refuge in the beautiful rural landscape around our city. The Swiss government never limited our time outside and so, with the choice of staying home and twiddling our thumbs or hiking in the beautiful spring sunshine, we naturally chose to head outdoors. At first I approached our hikes like a military expedition; planning hikes that would ensure that the children (and the dog) returned home with all their energy spent. But the more time that we spent outside, the more I came to enjoy our hikes for their own sake.
We started hiking regularly in March, and then as the pandemic showed no signs of retreating, kept going right through summer, autumn and winter. Spending so much time outside gave me a new and wonderful opportunity to watch as the year cycled through its seasons: as the trees celebrated the arrival of spring with confetti-like pink blossom, as the landscape turned red and gold in autumn, and then white with the arrival of winter. We’ve taken Maria Montessori’s adage “there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing” to heart and hiked in all weathers, and what’s more, enjoyed hiking in all weathers. After a long snowy hike in January, we all relished the simple pleasure of perching on a snowy bench to tuck into our thermos of coffee and snack on some home-made banana bread. I can also confidently state that removing your hiking boots and dipping your feet into a chilly mountain stream after an uphill hike in August is probably the most refreshing sensation on earth!
Although my family really took to hiking during the pandemic, we’ve also fallen in love with other outdoor pursuits. Trying to avoid public transport has turned us all into avid cyclists and we’ve discovered so many charming new streets as we’ve walked from one end of the city to another. I’ve also come to enjoy just being outside, simply sitting and enjoying the sounds of birds or a waterfall.
In case this sounds too fanciful, let me assure you that we’ve had all sorts of mishaps too. On one of our first walks in Switzerland, I naively believed a description of a route as “well-paved and easily accessible” and, remembering some of the easy walks I’d done with a stroller in England, set out with a single water bottle (for the whole family) and some comfortable moccasins. Whether we took the wrong path or the travel guide simply had a very different idea of accessible, I’ll never know, but we found ourselves on a long, rocky path down a steep hillside. By the time we’d realised that the path was going to stay like this…for miles- we’d already committed ourselves and to turn back would have been just as difficult as pressing on! We all made it down to Lake Lugano where I was able to rest my aching feet! It was an important lesson, however, nature is tough and it can be dangerous so be prepared! The next time we went for a hike, we were all in proper shoes with plenty of provisions and a better map- and it was a whole lot more fun!
Seeing nature in all her glory, however, has given me a newfound respect for the planet. It is hard not to be awed by a thundering waterfall, or the way the mist can roll down a mountainside in minutes. I’ve also come to love how peaceful and solitary spending time outdoors can be. In Switzerland, you can often hike for hours without seeing another soul. Having grown up in London, this was a little eerie at first but I’ve come to love how much it forces you to focus on your thoughts and your surroundings. It’s where my husband and I often discuss and make plans; there’s something about debating a relatively minor issue in front of a mountain or a remote 11th century hillfort that seems to put everything into perspective.
If you’d told me 10, or even five, years ago that I’d have become a full-fledged member of the “outdoorsy” club, I would never have believed you. I think the pandemic has been partially responsible for my new-found love for the outdoors- and I don’t think I’m alone in this. But I have to give Switzerland the majority of the credit: I’ve been awed by the scenery here (it’s just as beautiful as the postcards would have you believe!) and the magnitude and variety of the landscapes. I hope we stay in Switzerland for a few more years at least, but I think that spending time outdoors will be an essential part of my life now, wherever we live next. Once you’ve had your eyes opened to the beauty of the great outdoors, you’ll never be able to live without it.
Images by Asha Mentzer.