Collect a mountain of holiday memories
ROB IRVINE returns to the lakes and mountains of Switzerland for the first time since his early childhood
BEFORE Britons discovered the joys of toasting both sides of their bodies on a beach in Spain, the destination of choice for those who could afford overseas travel was Switzerland.
My father’s first-ever package holiday back in the 50s was to the Bernese Oberland, home of two great lakes and three great mountains, the vertiginous Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau.
He took us kids back in the late 1960s and early 70s and my earliest recollections include Alpine meadows, being laid low with German measles in the chalet and receiving a Mars bar to cheer me up (in the home of chocolate, why not Lindt?).
Trouble was that with the Swiss franc blooming and the peseta shrivelling, economic sense said head to the sun for the summer break. So it was farewell to Switzerland, for a very long time.
Returning recently to the Oberland I was filled with questions and mixed emotions. Would it live up to the memory? Would it all have changed? Was the water of Lake Brienz as icy blue as the memory of it?
Did the mile-high north face of the Eiger really fill you with awe and even dread or were these feelings gleaned from books about the pioneering Alpinists of the 1930s?
It was a delight and relief to discover the Swiss alps today are all that I remembered, and more.
First of all those snow-capped mountains. They are breathtaking, towering 13,000 feet high, their craggy sides crammed with glaciers, cliffs rising from the valley floor to seemingly unattainable summits.
Cable cars, gondolas, funiculars and mountain railways take even the most modest of explorers high into the peaks where, this being Switzerland, the magnificent views can be enjoyed from the terrace of a mountain top café. You don’t need to be a goat to get the best out of this place.
Switzerland is usually thought of as a winter ski destination but this is all about enjoying the Alps from spring to autumn by walking rather than sliding. There is even a growing trend for people to go on winter hikes and many footpaths are kept clear of snow to this end.
There are so many places to visit that you could spend a month in the Bernese Oberland and not repeat yourself. So we crammed just some of the favourites into our five-day trip.
The picture postcard village of Wengen clings to the side of the Lauterbrunnen Valley.
This car-free village is reached by mountain railway and has unrivalled views of the valley and the Jungfrau mountain. It is a great base to explore the Oberland and it was here we stayed in the delightful four-star Wengener Hof hotel. It has an old school charm with comfortable and quiet rooms and really friendly and helpful staff. We were staying half-board and enjoyed lavish five-course meals in the hotel restaurant which has picture windows onto the peaks and snowfields.
As a first tour we took the train down to the valley to walk along the cliff-sided Lauterbrunnen valley, stopping off at Trummelbach, a series of waterfalls inside the cliffs bringing 20,000 litres of glacial water every second.
Nearby we boarded a cable car which soars to the top of the Schilthorn. There we had a magnificent lunch of wild venison stew in a revolving restaurant. The plan was to watch the scenery roll by as we ate but we were in the thick of cloud (clear skies are not guaranteed). Here was filmed the James Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (the Lazenby one) and there is an interesting museum full of Bond bric-a-brac.
The next day we took the train across to the neighbouring Grindelwald valley, then on a gondola up to First which has fantastic views of the Wetterhorn, Schreckhorn and Eiger. A good walk to the high mountain lake of Bachalp put us in the mood for a 50mph slide down the First Flyer zip wire ride. Then we hopped on trottibikes, which are like large versions of children’s scooters for a dash down the mountain roads back to Grindelwald. Only one tumble along the way, not a bad score for a reckless descent.
We slowed the pace a touch with a lovely trip on a steamer from the town of Interlaken on Lake Brienz, still as blue as in my memories. At the far end a short train ride took us to Meiringen, supposed birthplace of the meringue and also home of a superb Sherlock Holmes museum. The area features prominently in Conan Doyle’s detective stories and a short walk and funicular ride takes you to the dramatic Reichenbach Falls where Holmes and his archenemy Moriarty plunged from a cliff, locked in a deadly embrace.
The high point, literally, came on the last day when we took the famous Jungfraujoch, Europe’s highest railway, which climbs to 11,000 feet. It is so high you feel lightheaded but on a sunny day it is a bit of snowy heaven. There you can see the last of middle Europe’s giant glaciers carving out new valleys. The speed at which glaciers are shrinking is just one measure of the impact of global warming, but at this altitude you are still firmly in the ice age.
There is great fun to be had on a scarily high zip wire and there are toboggans and huge inflatables to ride down the hillside. For the visitors who come in huge numbers from the Gulf states, this is a once-in-alifetime opportunity for a selfie on a pair of skies.
We said our final farewells at the Oberland’s hidden gem. Mannlichen is just a 10-minute cable car ride from Wengen but draws nothing like the crowds on the Jungfraujoch. Strange because it offers the ultimate panorama of the entire mountain range, the lakes, towns and valleys below. A new Royal Walk opened last year, a fitting name for this crowning glory of the Swiss Alps.
Switzerland is not cheap, but for a lifetime’s memories it is worth that little extra and it is easy to reach with direct flights from Manchester to Zurich and a delightful train trip on Switzerland’s ultra-efficient rail network. Maybe give the beach a break and head to the hills, you won’t regret it.