This month's lead story uses three Swiss cities, Samedan, Interlaken and Lucerne, as a base of operations for a series of easy to moderate - but spectacular- mountain walks. The piece includes recommended hotels and restaurants, costs, descriptions of the walks, rail info, and directions.
By Claudia Fischer & Roger Holliday
This month our Fischer-Holliday duo, using three Swiss cities as a base of operations, lay out a series of easy to moderate mountain walks.
"Experience the Swiss Alps in all their breathtaking magnificence...unspoilt mountain forests, lush Alpine pastures, rushing mountain streams and valleys with their rich traditions stretching back hundreds of years..."Oh no," we hear you Gemütlichkeit readers saying, "not another syrupy symphony to Switzerland; another paean to alpine perfection."
Actually, this sugarcoated hyperbole came not from us but from a brochure extolling the glamours of the Glacier Express and we sympathize wholeheartedly with the poor 'hackenflack' who had to pen these words. For how do you honestly and accurately describe 'gobsmacking' scenery? Crisp, clear, unpolluted mountain air. The broad palette of sky blues, turquoise lakes, mountain greens and forest fawn. How do you transfer the sweet smell of a forest pine from nose to prose without some scratch and sniff technology. Or the ubiquitous tolling of deep-throated cowbells absent sound systems from Bose or Blaupunkt. How in the world do you put into words the awesome overwhelm of the Ogre, the Monk and the Virgin for the average flatlander? Or explain to car-bound Yanks a Swiss public transportation system that seamlessly meshes every one of its movable parts...like one of those multifunction Victorinox knives. Trains to buses. Buses to ferries. Ferries to cog rails. Cog rails to gondolas. Ad infinitum. And Rolex precise.
The answer is you don't. You can't. And because our monikers are Fischer and Holliday not Wordsworth or Twain, we're already in danger of outrunning our limited range of descriptive superlatives. In any case, regular readers of this newsletter are already familiar with the extraordinary sum total of natural wonders already crammed into and onto this tiny country the size of a West Virginia or a Wales.
Yes, indeed. Switzerland still remains the pretty and peaceful democracy it has been for 500 years. And, despite a few recent high-profile social and political blips, it's still practically perfect...and perfectly predictable.
So given all this, is it conceivable that in some ways Switzerland could be a bit passe, touristically speaking? A used-up chad, perhaps? A little long in the traveler's tooth? Tell a frequent Euroflier, for example, that you're planning a Helvetian holiday and watch those eyes glaze over. Been there. Done that. "How about Turkey. Or Corsica. Or Singapore?" Or whatever the Conde Nast flavor of the month happens to be.
Frankly, for many years, we've been feeling a bit the same way. And despite a lock-box filled with quite delicious memories, we've also been bypassing or simply ignoring die Schweiz in favor of some of the more trendy destinations. But as we traveled the rest of the world, checking in and out of overpriced, overrun, over-hyped hotels, something kept tugging at our subconscious. Wistful visions of those small, intimate, family-owned and run Swiss hotels where everything works. Where the owners keep in contact over the years with a Christmas card or two. And where you know that on arrival you'll feel instantly chez vous, zu Hause, at home.
Well, three of these treasures keep coming up every time we try to compile our list of all-time favorite digs. Three hotels. Three different styles. Three different stars.
And so we decided to "do" Switzerland once again. We put together a trip that would focus on these specific hostelries and the happy families who live there; using them as bases from which to practice, in greater depth, another activity that has become increasingly vital to our travel lives...and to our ever bulging waistlines. Country walking a.k.a rambling a.k.a hiking.
It all started, this hiking business, several years ago when we happened to read about a low-key Swiss adventure (read "walk for softies") that actually allowed someone with zero to no experience...or special climbing equipment... to be lifted clear into high Alpine territory and then take an exquisite stroll along the roof the world. Closer to heaven than should be legally allowed. We followed instructions handed out by the Interlaken Tourist Office. Took a long, dreamy gondola ride from choc-box Grindelwald up to Männlichen - a spot, a plateau, a staging point 7,000 feet above the sea - then walked for an easy and totally unforgettable 90 minutes along a flat, groomed trail to a huddle of buildings called Kleine Scheidegg. We walked the path along with mums and dads. With strollers. And dogs. With knobbly-kneed experten in Lederhosen mit hiking poles. With seniors moving along at their own pace. And novitiates in trainers, like ourselves. With the long, the short and the tall of the rambling fraternity...all oohing and aahing at the 360 degrees of intoxicating scenery and specifically at the awesome vistas of the Eiger, the Monch and the Jungfrau. There are several ways to finish this walk. Return to Grindelwald via cable car, take a train ride down the other side of the mountain to Wengen...or, as we decided to do, walk down to Wengen, a fairly easy trek of two hours or so. The popular - and expensive - railway trip to Jungfraujoch at 11,333 ft. departs from Kleine Scheidegg so it would be possible to combine the two experiences into one spectacular day. Needless to say, we were hooked. Instantly. And now, wherever we land...be it the Aussie outback, the Hebridean hinterland, Slovenian lake country...we always make sure we take at least one long walk on the wild side. Relatively speaking.
And now we've just returned from a fall fortnight blessed with outstanding weather, only two 'regenshrimy' days in 14 - but also bracketed on either end by some of the worst rainstorms the country has experienced in 50 years or more.
On this particular Swiss tour, the tiny village of Samedan in the Engadine Valley in the extreme southeast of the country, had to be our initial destination. It takes precisely 24 hours to get there from our house in Northwest Ohio. One car ride (to Detroit). Two airplanes. Three trains. And we're there. In Mrs. Morell's front parlor in the Hotel Terminus.
We first tumbled upon this modest but comfy hostelry some 10 years ago when we were searching for lodgings in nearby St. Moritz. It was off-season, late evening and there was no room at any inn. But the helpful tourist people in the next village of Celerina thought Frau Morell in Samedan might have a place for us. She did and we have been forever thankful. Now several years later, we firmly believe Samedan and the Terminus, directly across from the train station may well be the perfect soft landing for anyone visiting Switzerland for the first time...or the 10th.
First, the village itself is 16th century romantic...and Romansch. Totally unpretentious and pretty with pastel-painted houses accented in woods and wrought iron. Cobbled streets, of course. And a simple 13th century Church of St Peter with a graceful tower and bells that charmingly chime your nights away...every 15 minutes!
There are several lodging options in Samedan, as you might expect from a village smack bang in ski country. Thirteen hotels with 525 beds, according to the local T.O., plus numerous apartments, B&Bs and camping sites. While these are dominated physically...and fiscally..by the 4-star Hotel Bernina, the 2-star Terminus is ground zero and an Editor's Choice for us. Eighteen rooms, trimmed in light pine, spic 'n' span Swiss with views of snow capped peaks from every window over red and pink geraniumed flower boxes. Their well-run restaurant has all the usual hearty stuff. Schnitzels, Rösti and such. Simple. Substantial. And properly priced. But it's really the Morell family's efficient, no gush style and the overall gemütlichkeit of the place that makes it so irresistible. (The Terminus does not have an elevator.)
* Contact: Hotel Terminus, CH-7503 Samedan, tel. +41/081/852 5336, fax 852-44-52, Family Morell-Kapeller
* Daily rates: Singles 98-107 Sfr. ($54-$59), doubles 190-204 Sfr. ($106-$113)
An Engadine Walk
The walk we made from here, described in the Samedan Tourist Office handout as "a must for every guest to our region" was precisely as advertised. It focuses on a mountain called Muragl that towers over the valley.
A 40-minute walk from Samedan along the River Inn (the same river, incidentally, that eventually finds its way to Innsbruck) brings you to the Punt Muragl parking lot where a steep cable car ride (discounted with the Swiss Rail Pass) rises over 7,000 feet and plonks passengers right onto the terrace of the aptly named Berghotel (rooms and food available) with simply staggering views over the Engadine Valley with its string of blue, blue lakes and eagle-eyed views of St. Moritz, Pontresina and Samedan.
While there are two optional walks from here, the easier...and the one we chose...was on a fairly flat and well prepared trail that took us all around the mountainside. Ninety minutes of breathtaking valley scenery interrupted only by the ritualized and obligatory greetings of Grüss Gott or Grütsi Miteinander to oncoming walkers, Kodak photo ops at every bend, the intoxicating scents from the occasional pine and the odd rumble of a waterfall.
The first hour or so of the walk was, again, virtually effortless, as evidenced by the families comprised of the old, the young and even the halt and lame on occasion. Who goes up must, unfortunately at some point, also go down.
One option at the end was a steep uphill slog to Alp Languard and a chairlift to Pontresina...or a long hours sometimes slippery and serpentine descent to the valley floor which required some very heavy breathing, the use of our indispensable Leki hiking poles...and two very strong drafts of Fischer's best brew at the end...before taking the short train ride back to Samedan. Next time the chairlift...but the experience reinforced everything we remembered about Swiss high-country hiking. Easy access. Well groomed, safe trails. Excellent way signs with distances and difficulty measures. And incomparable scenery.
You don't really go to Interlaken for its earthly pleasures. A bit too much kitsch and shop-opping these days. But for us, a couple of things make this resort town between two lakes "worth a journey." its unbeatable location as the gateway to the Bernese Oberland...and the Hotel Krebs.
While the Krebs, another indisputable Editor's Choice in our view, doesn't get many mentions in the travel guides, perhaps because it closes between October and April (snow folk sleep closer to their slopes), we continue to be massively impressed by everything about this special place.
The Krebs is on Bahnhofstrasse, less than 200 yards from the Interlaken West station making it a good base for excursions. The public rooms are charming with polished wood floors, oriental rugs, antique furniture in cozy groupings and lots of greenery.
The 42 guestrooms in this 4-star hotel are all individually decorated and comfortably furnished. The breakfast buffet, served in the pretty dining room, is both elaborate and delicious. But as with all our favorite Swiss hotels, the people are the key element at the Krebs, beginning with Marianne Koschak-Krebs, fourth generation owner and her charming husband, Peter.
An unexpected bonus for a hotel of this size and price range is the concierge, Alberto, from Assisi. In his 33 years with the family, Alberto has accumulated a wealth of information about everything from country walks and folkloric evenings to train and postbus schedules.
* Daily Rates: Singles 124-178 Sfr. ($69-$99), doubles 190-294 Sfr. ($106-$163)
Schynige Platte Walk
While the walking possibilities out of Interlaken are seemingly endless- you have only to look at the yellow directional signs in the middle of town or check in at the tourist office to find that out- we have a couple of suggestions above and beyond that original Männlichen/Scheidegg experience. (We do recommend that you always check out the weather of any mountain you're planning to visit...before you set out. The hotel TV sets have a channel that allows you to monitor conditions topside which can be very different from those at ground zero.)
The first is the classic Schynige Platte. Three stars from the Michelin Man. The same from us. And whether you're going out for some fairly rigorous exercise....or just to hang out and breathe in the stupendous views...the pretty little village of Wilderswil is the jumping off point, reachable either by train from Interlaken Ost, bus #5 from Interlaken West car park or via a pleasant 45-minute stroll through woods and farm country.
From that busy little station, a rack railway carries you skywards for the better part of an hour before turning everyone out onto the Schynige Platte station...with its own refreshment stand and a curious little store selling mountain gear; hiking boots, poles and the like.
Above one end of the station is a large sunny hotel terrace where you can inhale your kaffee und kuchen at 6,800 feet with stupendous views over the Jungfrau Massif; on the other end is an Alpine Botanical Garden filled with local flora. Either of which would be enough to make the whole trip worthwhile. But for anyone with breath left in their lungs, a little ooompf in their legs and some decent foot gear, there's a simply brilliant "panoramic trail" that circles the summit for two hours. The first ten minutes or so...straight up...are a bit of a struggle, but then drop-dead views back down over Lake Brienz where the ferries look like toys in a bath tub, make all that heavy breathing well worth while. The rest of the invigorating walk doesn't disappoint either.
Grindelwald First Walk
Grindelwald, a short train ride from Interlaken, is the starting point for yet another fair weather classic that can be either active or passive, depending on your particular disposition or energy level. A cable car a few hundred meters up from the train station takes about 20 minutes in three steep stages up 6,600 ft. to the very top of the First mountainside - a viewing table and hotel that overlooks the Grindelwald basin, the Schreckhorn and of course, the Eiger peaks. Sit up here and enjoy the scenery. And cable car back down. Take an easy and popular hour-long walk along the ridge to an alpine lake called the Bachsee. Or decide as we did - with not a little trepidation - to walk all the way back down to Grindelwald. Three knee-wearing but gorgeous hours through storybook country with unexpected loud bangs and booms off in the distance...provided by the Swiss army using the Eiger for artillery practice!
Easy Walk in the Lauterbrunnen Valley
If all this sounds a bit over the top, a bit too vigorous., there's a lovely leisurely option for Everyman through the Lauterbrunnen Valley. It incorporates peaceful alpine scenes, a famous mountain resort, a heartstopping cable car descent and concludes with a thunderous waterfall.
Take the train from Interlaken to Lauterbrunnen, meeting up with a funicular spectacular that whisks straight up a shockingly steep 61% grade cliff-side to Grtschalp (altitude 4,879 ft).
From there either take a 13-minute scenic mountain railway along the ridge to the resort village of Mürren - with yet even more fantastic views of the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau - or walk there at a leisurely one hour and 30-minute rate over a wide, flat footpath that parallels the railway track.
Mürren itself is an attractive, small, car-free ski center where an Englishman named Arnold Lunn once invented the slalom. From there, you can follow a winding paved road down another two miles to the tiny farm hamlet of Gimmelwald. All cowbells. And pastures. And wooden houses mit Blumen.
From Gimmelwald, a cable car makes an eye-popping plunge off the edge of a cliff down to the Lauterbrunnen Valley floor. Next, a short bus ride on to the famous Trümmelbach Falls...where boiling cauldrons of rushing water corkscrew down through the valley walls at 20,000 liters a second. An elevator and a stepped catwalk take you right into the heat of the action. A bus goes back to Lauterbrunnen.
If there's a hotel that personifies and glorifies a city, it has to be the Rebstock in Lucerne. And its personable owner, Claudia Moser. The Rebstock has many wonderful qualities, not the least of which is the easy 10-minute walk to the train station.
The hotel is situated on a square next to the Cathedral of St. Ledger, the patron saint of Lucerne. And the building itself, which housed a vintner's guildhall in 1443, is an officially recognized Swiss landmark and full of interesting nooks and crannies. The guest rooms, not surprisingly, come in many shapes and sizes. A few are on the small side with standard double beds. But each is decorated with style and flair, combining modern art and bold colors with well-chosen antiques. Even the bathroom tiles and towels fit into the color scheme.
Although there is an elevator, its use necessitates walking up a half flight of stairs. There are three excellent restaurants in the hotel serving traditional Swiss food with contemporary twists: a formal dining room, a bistro/café, and an informal lunch room that looks out over the street through wide glass windows. This is also where the breakfast buffet is served which includes eggs cooked to order.
Frau Moser, the longtime owner, is responsible for the decor and the daily operations and she is as unique as her hotel. During our stay she struck up a discussion about the then upcoming U.S. elections with every American who stayed in the hotel. Clearly fascinated by the process, she was anxious to know what each of us thought. Of course, since then we've stayed in fax contact with her to continue the exchange.
* Contact: Hotel zum Rebstock Claudia Moser St. Leodegar Strasse 3 CH-6006 Lucerne Phone 011-41-41-410-35-81 Fax 011-41-41-410-39-17
* Daily rates: Singles 170-200 Sfr. ($94-$111), doubles 250-320 Sfr. ($139-$178)
Lucerne Mountain Walks
The hiking excursions from Lucerne are limitless. This is, after all, William Tell country. And the region's transport links are splendid with fleets of steamers and plenty of rack railways to take you off the beaten path. The best-known mountain tops - Pilatus and Rigi - are no less accessible and it was the Rigi that we chose for our wild side walk.
After two days of rain, the weather forecasts were promising a clear patch, so we took an early morning ferry from Lucerne to Vitznau and connected with Europe's oldest rack railway...vintage 1871 and 25% discounted with our indispensable Swiss Pass...for the long 1,800 meter climb to Rigi Kulm.
Most of the journey was through a thick layer of cloud but just as we reached the summit station, we broke through into clear sunshine giving us a simply stunning panoramic view of snowy peaks poking out of a thick sea of fluffy white clouds...the whole Alpine range...from end to end. There are easy walks all over the Rigi among woods and pastures...and the sunrise seen from the mountain top has apparently brought tearful exaltations from generations of travelers...including Victor Hugo.
While the clouds and mist blanketing the lower reaches of the mountain didn't allow us to experience Rigi at its all-time best, the five-hour trek back down to Gersau for the ferry was exceptional enough for us to proclaim that, like General McArthur..."We shall return!"
Equipment & Fitness
Equipment: All the walks described, with the exception of Rigi Kulm, can be accomplished in decent weather with a pair of sturdy trainers and a light jacket. In a perfect world, however, we would recommend the following:
* A good pair of waterproof walking shoes or boots with good traction
* A waterproof jacket.
* A hat to keep out the sun/rain
* A walking stick or collapsible hiking pole
* A daypack for an extra sweater, camera, water bottle and binoculars.
Fitness: While most of these walks can be handled by anyone of limited experience or fitness level, we still recommend potential country ramblers begin a moderate exercise program at least three months before leaving home.
• CIA Factbook:
• About Switzerland:
• Lonely Planet: