Col­lect a moun­tain of hol­i­day mem­o­ries

ROB IRVINE re­turns to the lakes and moun­tains of Switzer­land for the first time since his early child­hood

Macclesfield Express - - TRAVEL -

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.

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