In the 1973 movie, Day of the Jackal, the sophisticated assassin with an eye for the finer things drives to Paris to kill Charles de Gaulle. On his way through France he stops for a night at a gorgeous little country hotel where he rents a fine room, dines in style, and meets a beautiful woman.
The scenes involving this posh hideaway provided U.S. movie goers a glimpse of a romantic but, for most, unfamiliar style of auto travel. After all, in 1973, the choice by default for the U.S. motorist who had to overnight on the road was a motel and a truck stop meal. (Unfortunately, except for scattered bed & breakfast accommodations, motels and chain restaurants are still virtually our only choice.)
But 25 years have passed since the Jackal's errant shot and millions of us are now veterans of independent European auto vacations. We realize that ending a day's travel in a hotel which, at breakfast, we didn't even know existed, is one of the great joys of traveling in Europe. It's even better when the discovered hotel has a good kitchen, a wine cellar and is a bargain to boot.
Country lodgings come in all price categories. The Jackal, for example, would have risked his cover for dinner and a bed at l'Ermitage in Vufflens-Le-Château (CH-1134, tel. 41/021/802 2191, fax 802 2240, see Gemütlichkeit, April 1995) near Morges on Lake Geneva. He would, of course, pay upwards of $150 for the meal (not including wine) and another $200-plus for one the hotel's nine charming guest chambers. l'Ermitage is definitely his kind of place.
Hotel Hirschen - Langnau
But a more secure hideout and a far less pricey one would be one we came across 10 years ago in Switzerland's Emmental, that pastoral valley of cheese-makers and massive farm houses that lies between Bern and Lucerne.
Leaving Lucerne by car one Saturday afternoon we headed for the countryside with the vague notion of ending in Bern for the night. In the farm village of Langnau we stopped for a refreshment at a likely looking hotel built in the Bernese Country House style. It was the Hirschen and after a look at one or two guestrooms we decided to stay the night.
The Swiss Hotel Association defines a Landgasthof or Country Inn as a hotel/restaurant "typical of the area with good cuisine, comfortable accommodation and adequate parking facilities. It is characterized by high quality and personal attention to the guests." The Hirschen is one of these.
Our dinner there, after which owner-chef Walter Birkhäuser opened bottle after bottle of Swiss wine and shared with us the secret of making Rösti (set the potatoes in a window sill for few days after boiling, and fry them in lard), remains one of our most unforgettable travel experiences (Gemütlichkeit, January 1988). On that first visit, Herr Birkhäuser and his wife Marla didn't know about the travel newsletter Gemütlichkeit, they just liked Americans, particularly those who showed a little interest in wine and Swiss country cooking.
Earlier this year, after noticing the Birkhäuser name had been replaced on Switzerland Tourism's listing as proprietors of the hotel, we returned to the Hirschen to reassess the situation.
Except for the café/breakfast room, which has been revamped, the hotel is the same; rustic, cozy, immaculate.
The Hirschen traces its lineage to the mid-17th century when it was a popular tavern. The location, in the center of Langnau, in the heart of the Emmental, has made it a meeting point ever since. Today it is an ideal headquarters for auto travelers who wish to explore the Emmental's maze of backroads and many farm villages. And, being but a short walk from the rail station, it is equally convenient for train travelers.
Our assigned room, Number 21, is typical of the house, with simple pine furniture, adequate closet space, a comfortable bed, TV, and a serviceable bathroom.
The hotel's major attraction, though, is its restaurant, which is arranged in three separate but contiguous dining areas and is done entirely, ceilings, walls, beams, dividers, in a golden-hued wood. The well-spaced tables and booths have white cloths, fresh flowers and low lamps. The effect is one of comfort and graciousness but not formality; women in slacks and men in open collar shirts will not feel out of place.
Under Herr Birkhäuser, the restaurant developed somewhat of a local reputation which seems to have been maintained under the new chef, Urs Weyermann, and is reflected in the prices. Main courses range from about 24 to 38 Sfr. ($18-$29), but the portions are massive; expect a second serving.
As before, we dined well; this time on Rehfiletschnitzel, four tender filets of venison topped with banana and sliced grapes, and on Geflgelbrusten, a boned, roasted breast and leg of chicken. With it came the Hirschen's still-marvelous Rösti and sautéed snow peas and carrots. The venison was accompanied by Spätzle and a scattering of winter vegetables including Brussels sprouts and beets.
Many European restaurants which take themselves seriously serve a small "gift of the house" to begin the meal. In this case it was a dollop of salmon tartar on a tiny, crisp waffle.
We are fans of that Germanic staple, the Gemischter Salat (mixed salad). The Hirschen's version is an especially good one with leafy greens, julienned carrots, celery root, beets, and sliced cucumbers, tossed in a creamy, mustardy dressing, and topped with croûtons and grated hard boiled egg.
A surprise of our 1987 visit was finding a modest 18-room hotel sitting atop a vaulted, underground wine cellar of several thousand bottles from all over the world. Fortunately, the cellar had been restocked since our first visit when we had seriously depleted it. Remembering Herr Birkhäuser's fierce advocacy of Swiss wines we chose La Cretta (36 Sfr./$27), a Pinot Noir from the Valais and were not disappointed.
With dessert, but not including beverages, dinner for two was 76 Sfr. ($57).
In the course of the evening, we became aware of a lively table in a separate, almost semiprivate part of the dining room. This animated party of six tasted several wines, toasted each other from time to time, and were obviously enjoying themselves.
Near the end of the meal, we asked the waiter what had become of the hotel's former owner.
"Herr Birkhäuser?," he replied. "Why, he's right over there," indicating the table we had noted. So, while we had been discussing the whereabouts of Walter Birkhuser, we had been looking at his broad back for an hour and a half.
Following our 1987 visit, we had written a glowing report on the Hirschen, which maybe is why the Birkhäuser's remembered us after so many years. We discovered they still own the hotel but no longer manage it, having retired in 1993 from that life of long days and short nights. It was good to see them hale and hearty.
We would be hard pressed to name more than a handful of country hotels in its price category that match the Hirschen's cuisine, comfort and charm. In the 10 years since our last review, it hasn't lost a step.
Daily Rates: Singles 80 to 95 Sfr. ($59-$70), doubles 130 to 160 Sfr. ($96-$119)
Contact: Hotel Hirschen Dorfstrasse 17, CH-3550, +41/034/402 1517, fax 402 5623. Proprietors: Hedy and Urs Weyermann, Urs Messerli.
Hotel Rating: Quality 13/20, Value 15/20
Rest. Rating: Quality 15/20, Value 12/20
If the Jackal really wanted to disappear for a few days, he could do worse than the peaceful Emmental. This is a region that feels very much off the beaten track but isn't; it can be accessed in minutes by train (see box, page 2) or by car from Bern or Lucerne.
The main attractions, outside of the super little cheese factory at Affoltern, are farming villages, incredibly green hills, hurrying little streams, broad pastures, and dark forests an early-to-bed, early-to-rise kind of place. In a word, country. Visitors will want to bring walking shoes and something to read.
If someone on the lam, such as the Jackal, wanted to "go to ground," as the Brits say, we've got just the place. (It's also recommended to law-abiding citizens such as yourself.)
In the tiny hamlet of Signau about 5 km (3 miles) southwest of Langnau is the Beck House, built in 1788 and owned by the Johnny-come-lately Beck family since 1951.
For 420 Sfr. ($315) per week you can rent their flat on the first floor (our second). It has a kitchen, sitting room, two bedrooms (a third is possible), a wide balcony overlooking the garden, and 210 years of atmosphere.
The rail station is a 200-meter walk and there is a restaurant across the street.
The Becks are a very welcoming older couple who speak little or no English, so we suggest booking through the tourist office (see right).
You'll probably have the most relaxing week of your life provided Interpol doesn't catch up with you.
Beck Haus, Dorfstrasse 45, CH-3534 Signau, tel. +4/034/497 1344. Recommended.
Emmental Odds & Ends
The Emmentaler Schaukserei (Emmental Show Dairy) is the best of its kind we've found in Switzerland. Emmental cheese is made here all day, every day. Visitors are received from 8:30am to 6:30pm, 365 days a year. While watching the cheese being made, they can don headphones that describe the process in several languages, including English.
Also on the property is a herdsman's cottage with an Alpine dairy dating from 1741, a bakery and sweet shop, a handicraft store, and, of course, a restaurant and cheese shop.
Emmentaler Schaukserei CH-3416 Affoltern i.e., tel. +41/034/435 1611, fax 435 0151.
Contact Pro Emmental (address below) to book a two-night farm weekend. The price of 107 Sfr. ($80) per adult and 54 Sfr. ($41) per child (kids under 4 are free) includes two nights accommodations, breakfast, and dinner one night with the host family. Pro Emmental cautions that host farm families speak only German.
Emmental Tourist Office: Pro Emmental CH-3550 Langnau im Emmental, tel. +41/034/402 4252, fax 402 5667
* Langnau - Bern: There are dozens of trains running daily in each direction between Langnau and Bern. The trip can be as short as 29 minutes. Trains run as late as midnight, making it a simple matter to have dinner in Bern and return to your hotel in Langnau for a good nights sleep.
* Langnau - Lucerne: During commute hours, trains run about every half hour. During the rest of the day the interval is about once an hour. The trip can take as little as 47 minutes.
* Signau - Bern: More than two dozens trains run daily in each direction. Travel time is usually slightly more than 30 minutes.
* Signau - Lucerne: About 18 trains per day in each direction. Depending on the train, the journey takes from an hour to an hour and a half.