Chantal Panozzo spent nearly a decade of her life in the land of cheese, chocolate, and people who can pronounce her name. The author of Swiss Life: 30 Things I Wish I’d Known, Chantal has written about Switzerland for a variety of publications, including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and CNN Travel. Currently at work on American Life: 30 Things I Wish I’d Known, she’d like to remind everyone that “really, it’s okay to live in canton Aargau.”
How has living in Switzerland influenced you?
It has changed my worldview on many things and taught me to appreciate other ways of life. But most importantly, it has given me an awareness of my own country and what it means to be an American. If you never leave the country you were born in, you will never truly understand who you are. And if you want to be a writer, forget fancy MFA programs. Going abroad is the best thing you can do.
What did you find to be the biggest cultural difference?
Switzerland is a closed culture, which can be hard for most English speakers to understand. The Swiss don’t smile on the streets or eagerly await your life story. Actually, they don’t talk to you at all until you basically exist for a year—or many years. It may seem as though they are unhappy, but this isn’t true—they just don’t share their happiness with the world—it’s considered a private thing.
Tell us about some of your favorite spa finds.
My favorite spa used to be the one in my hometown of Baden. Baden is the ultimate spa town—after all, Baden means, “to bathe.” The ThermalBaden had the most mineral-rich water in Switzerland. But since it has closed (a new spa in Baden is set to be built, but the construction has been delayed) my new favorite spa is the Termali Salini & Spa Lido Locarno. Here you can bathe in warm salt water while you sit in a bubble chair and look out at Lake Maggiore and the Alps. Thanks to its infinity pool design, it appears as if you’re lounging in the lake. It’s hard to leave.
Switzerland is too beautiful to be true—but it is true—and the perfect red bench, which looks freshly painted but is perfectly dry, is just waiting for you to sit down and accept the reality of your non-reality.
Is there a spa experience that sticks with you?
The first time I went to the ThermalBaden, I couldn’t wait to relax in the warm, mineral-rich water. But everything in Switzerland is scheduled—even relaxation. So every two minutes, a bell would ding and I would be reminded to move to the next jet. To me, this small spa experience summed up Swiss culture perfectly.
Nature is abundant—how do you take advantage of it?
Hiking. It’s what you do in Switzerland—every Sunday is hiking day. The country has over 60,000 km of well-marked and maintained trails. I love the combination of getting a great workout and being surrounded by some of the world’s most breathtaking scenery at the same time. You can hike year-round in Switzerland. In the winter, there are hundreds of groomed hiking trails. You don’t have to be a skilled Alpine skier to love the winter in Switzerland. You just need to be able to walk.
Favorite indoor spot?
I don’t really like doing sports indoors—I’m outside unless the weather is really bad. But if I had to choose a favorite it would be swimming. Almost every town (even the miniscule ones) has their own swimming pool in Switzerland. And they are usually beautiful and clean facilities that are very well maintained. Swimming is also one of the most reasonably priced sports you can do in Switzerland.
What’s next on your list to explore?
I’ve been lucky to see a lot of Switzerland. But still on my list: I’d love to have breakfast at the spa in Leukerbad (you’re served Champagne while you’re relaxing in the water), hike to the Creux du Van from the Noiraigue train station, and ride the Bernina Express route all the way to Tirano, Italy. The best part of the Bernina Express route I’ve experienced thus far is the Ospizio Bernina area, which is the highest part of the route. Here, you’ll find the turquoise Lago Bianco (white lake). The color is stunning, and so is the silence, so if you didn’t know any better, you’d think it was fake. But this is the reality of Switzerland—it’s too beautiful to be true—but it is true, and the perfect red bench, which looks freshly painted but is perfectly dry, is just waiting for you to sit down and accept the reality of your non-reality.