I suppose I fell in love with the mountains on a school skiing trip some forty years ago. The snow and the dramatic landscape, and of course the sport which I regret to say I have not kept up with.
Anyway Switzerland certainly has its share of dramatic scenery. A friend recently described the country as "The Peak District on steroids" so I was really looking forward to this trip to the Swiss Alps.
We arrived via Geneva airport in the afternoon and had arranged to meet up with my friends and colleagues at Le Baron Tavernier, a hotel, restaurant and bar perched high on a cliff overlooking Lake Geneva and which happened to be about half way to Thun where we were staying that night.
I had been to the bar here on a recent work trip to the area and was keen to share the amazing view with my wife. As always Christophe and Monique gave us the warmest of welcomes and we had a very pleasant meal of a traditional local dish, fresh perch from the lake. Christophe introduced us to a local white Chasselas wine which was very drinkable despite the fact that I am not usually a white wine drinker.
After dinner we drove to Thun to check in to the Hotel. We were now in the German-speaking region of Switzerland where we found we had a little difficulty in getting ourselves understood. My German is restricted to just a few words and Gilly, who has a better grasp of languages but whose German is nonetheless limited, found that her accent was not easily understood by those speaking the Swiss dialect. The Swiss, because of the very nature of their country, tend to be multilingual but here we found that English and French were not so commonly spoken, with Italian seeming to be the second language.
The main square in ThunBy daylight the next morning we were able to explore a little further. The old town of Thun is pleasant enough with a very pretty main square but the town can be seen in a couple of hours and the newer part of the town is nothing special.
In the main shopping street of the old town the shops are set on two levels which seems to be a remarkably efficient use of space.
On our walk we discovered the Untere Schleusenbruecke, a 300 year old covered wooden bridge (pictured left and below).
There are lots of restaurants in Thun, especially lining the river but food was eye-wateringly expensive. On the second evening we had dinner out of town in a greasy spoon café which was popular with the elderly locals who seemed to take their time over a drink and a game of cards. Even here one plate of sausages with rosti and a salad to share came to about £40. After that we started making sandwiches at breakfast to take with us as a packed lunch.
Gilly on the bridge. Looking down on the river from Jakobshubeli. A short walk along the river to the to the south followed by a steep climb brought us to the Jakobshubeli viewpoint from where you can get a panoramic view looking down on Thun. The view was slightly disappointing but the exercise did us good!
Gilly outside Schloss Thun. Brienz is a quaint and quiet town set on the edge of the exquisitely turquoise waters of its namesake lake. If we had known then we would probably have based ourselves here for the first part of our holiday but it was easy enough to get to, just an hour from Thun by car.
Brienz is famous for its wood carvings and they are even on display at the roundabout on the way into town. The shops are full of locally made produce including the iconic cuckoo clocks.
The inside of Swiss Protestant churches, at least the ones we saw, is very bare and spartan compared to the Catholic churches that we are more used to seeing elsewhere in Europe.
On the way back to Thun we stopped off at the Giessbachfalle waterfall. Although the waterfall plunges over 500M into the valley below, it tumbles over 14 rocky ridges, which means that you only see a small section at a time unless you stand well back. We got a more distant view of the falls when we walked to a nearby hotel for a coffee.
The public walkway winds around the back of the falls where you can feel the real power of the water.
Another lakeside stop along the way was at Spiez, a low-key village nestled in a fjord-like slither of the lake. We sat in the sunshine and ate dinner at a restaurant/bar by the harbour (below) and took in the view. Spiez harbour The following day we visited the much-hyped Interlaken. We had considered staying here as it seems to be the place that is recommended in the guides but we had decided on a smaller, quieter town.
It turned out that we had made the right choice. Sitting between the lakes of Thun and Brienz, as the name suggests, the town itself is surprisingly bland. A hint to this can be found in the travel literature which all hold an image of the same street. The street in question (below) is indeed the most beautiful in town. It is however, the only truly beautiful part of town. Interlaken The best views in Interlaken are in fact of the lakes and mountains which surround the town on all sides. This makes it an ideal venue for the paragliding thrill seekers who circle over the town like vultures. Also available in Interlaken are white water rafting, bungee jumping, sky diving, ice climbing and every other conceivable activity to get your adrenaline flowing. We didn't do any of those!
At 4,334 feet above sea level the viewing platform offers a spectacular panoramic view of Interlaken, the lakes and the mountains. The view (above) was well worth the expense.
Switching the more open panoramas of the lakes for a rather more vertical landscape, we drove towards Grindelwald. The road wound up between vertiginous mountain peaks and through alpine meadows, passing on the way the sort of chocolate box, geranium-studded chalets from which you imagine a cuckoo will emerge on the hour. Our self-catering chalet is pictured top left in the photo below. Self-catering in Grindelwald.
Grindelwald is a small town with a bustling centre packed with tourists but fortunately we had booked a self-catering chalet a short way out of town. In the evening we went in to town to try a traditional cheese fondue.
While driving I don't get to look at the scenery very much so we decided that the best way to get to see this area properly was by walking or hiking. Our walk from the chalet took us up a winding lane, through a wooded valley with tumbling glacial streams opening out to rich mountain pasture. The peace was broken only by the near-constant thrum of helicopters taking tourists to get a bird's eye view of the peaks.
Unfortunately the scale of this landscape is such that photography cannot hope to capture its majestic grandeur but I hope that I can convey something of the beauty which is never anything less than astonishing. If you have not visited this region before (and even if you have) the uplifting scenery will make your heart skip a beat.
Our next stop was Lauterbrunnen which nestles deep in a valley of 72 waterfalls, although we did not see them all. The most impressive that we did see was the Staubbach falls which plunges 297 meters to the valley floor. From a distance the water looks wispy and vaporous with threads of spray floating down the cliffside. Once you get closer however you realise that this is a torrent and if you decide to take the walk that leads up behind the falls then you are going to get wet!
In the evening I cooked us a meal and we spent the time on the balcony of our chalet, with a glass of wine, gazing across at the snow capped peaks of the Eiger, Jungfrau and Munch and listening to the chirrup of the crickets. As evening fell the swifts darting up and down the valley catching a late meal on the wing were replaced by bats, and later we took advantage of the dark skies to do some star gazing. In the distance we could see the illuminations of the river flowing down the valley in a colourful display of artificial light.
We returned to Lauterbrunnen again the following day but this time we took a cable car ride up the mountain followed by a short train journey to Murren. From there we hiked the stunning alpine trail which drops 280 meters through breath-taking vistas to the one-horse-town of Gimmelwald. Gilly was in Heidi heaven!
Heidi Heaven. The walk is advertised as being 40 minutes there and 55 minutes back, however, the outward journey took considerably longer as we paused regularly to take in the views and the return leg was hiked at a pace, fuelled by the promise of cake and a cold drink at the end of it.
On the last day, with the temperature rising to a very pleasant 32'C, we broke up the journey by stopping off at Gruyere. Now back in the French speaking region we were able to communicate rather more fluently.
Famous for its cheese, our first stop was at the dairy to look around the production facility and then the gift shop to buy samples of the renowned produce.
What is less known, and what took me completely by surprise, is that this is quite possibly the most beautiful town that I have ever seen. If there is a prize for the prettiest street then I would rate this above the lauded one in Brienz; and if there is a prize for the most beautiful town then I have rarely seen any in this league.
The world's prettiest street? Gruyere is a perfect picture postcard town. It embodies everything that I imagine a Swiss village to be. Perched on a rise like a Disney castle, the gate in the towering walls which encircle the town lets on to an idyllic high street that seems lost in time.
As you enter the town don't miss the chocolate shop on your right which sells the most exquisite dark chocolate ice cream.
Outside the ancient walls cows grazed, their bells clanging like wind-chimes on a summer breeze. A perfect fairy tale ending to the most extraordinarily beautiful summer break.
Switzerland's best kept secret. Well not quite the end. There was a stop for tea and chat at Gilly's cousin's house on the way to an evening flight out of Geneva. Thank you to Osy and Sally for your company and hospitality.
And so, as the sun set on our holiday, the heat of the day gave way to thunder storms and we were kept on the runway for two hours while the pilot waited for a break in the weather. Did this spoil our vacation? No, not one bit.
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