Travel in Switzerland: The Roof of Europe

Join our travel correspondent as he goes trottibiking with giants and ogres high up in Switzerland's Bernese Oberland...

 Thick cloud envelops the hills and cliffs surrounding our cog-wheel train as it grinds its way up the steep gorge between Interlaken and Grindelwald in the Swiss Alps.

Here a dark silhouette looms out from the mist, there a break in the cloud reveals a ramp of fallen rock; this is all the evidence we have that something vast towers overhead.

Grindelwald is walled in on all sides by summits miles high, but we were not to see the full extent of this until the weather lifted the following morning.

To say this is God’s Country doesn’t come close, huge snow capped masses ascend almost vertically from the valley floor for thousands of feet in every direction.

No, this is not God’s Country, this is Giant Country, and the Giant’s name is Martin.

Local legend holds that Martin forced the Mettenberg and Eiger mountains apart with his walking stick to allow the glacier through to the valley below.

The very name Eiger means “Ogre”, referring to a separate myth surrounding the chain: that the Mönch (monk) protects the Jungfrau (young maiden) from the advances of the Ogre.

These stories, along with those of the surrounding mountains, perhaps contributed to the fact that the area was largely untouched by climbers until the “golden age of alpine climbing” in the mid 19th Century.

The murderous north face of the Eiger was first conquered in 1938 by a team of Austrian and German climbers including Heinrich Harrer, who would later immortalise the tale in “The White Spider”, a gripping account of man’s struggle with the mountain.

The stunning surroundings and year-round mountain pursuits at Grindelwald naturally made it a Mecca for enthusiasts, dating back as far as 1864 when Thomas Cook brought the first package tour to the region.

As well as hiking, climbing and winter sports, the Jungfrau mountain railway, completed in 1912 and featuring the highest station in Europe remains a major year-round draw for visitors.

Modern tourism is visible but has by no means blighted the area.

This is a place built on rural tradition. Cows kept in sheds and barns in the valley during the frozen winter months go out to pasture on the mountains in summer to provide milk for the huge amounts of cheese produced here each year.

Dinner at the homely Sunstar Hotel Grindelwald that night consists of a fine local buffet, decent Swiss wines and cheese galore, accompanied by some thigh-slapping mountain music.

As the conversation turns to farming our guide mentions the rent-a-cow scheme run by many farmers in the area (my immediate reaction is “can you pay by the hour?” to which there is no reply...) whereby companies sponsor the animals in return for a share of the cheese at the end of the season.

During a tour of the Hotel’s gleaming, newly completed spa facilities our host announces in hushed tones: “We cannot enter, it is a naked space”. We all grin Britishly and say we might pop by tomorrow.

The evening is wiled away in the lounge listening to the cabaret act crooning drum-machine versions of The Beatles, quintessential Euro-entertainment.

The next morning we jump in a minibus that carries us high up in the clouds to visit a dairy herd. The farmer has produced cheese here for 13 years, his father before him 60.

It’s an energetic, non-stop summer task that is carried out in his combination log house/cheese factory/cowshed. Speaking of the purity of the product compared with that mass-produced in the sterile factories (and between gulps of the freshest cream on Earth) our interpreter softly proclaims: “you need the sound of the mountain to make cheese, otherwise it is a cheese hospital”.

The sound of the mountain is everywhere; a melodious cacophony of cowbells of the kind that you know would drive you mad sooner or later.

From the farm at Bussalp we take a gentle hike through cool pine forest and grassy Alpine meadows dotted with flowers and cabins, birds singing in the trees and the cloud lifting all the while to reveal awesome views of the Eiger, Mettenberg and Wetterhorn.

Not far along the virtually deserted trails we reach Bort, a midway cable car station where we take a gondola up to First, a restaurant sited 7,000 feet up the slope of the Schwarzhorn.

More sturdy alpine fare of steaming potatoes, pears and ham (and of course more cheese) is consumed, and more stunning vistas of peaks and glaciers provided by the restaurant’s observation platform before the weather closes in once again and it is time to descend.

The gondola returns us to the afternoon sunshine at Bort where we pick up the latest Alpine “Extreme Sports” machine: The Trottibike. These are tough, bicycle-sized scooters that are carried uphill by cable car to the start of the run, from where the track descends some 1,500 feet over the course of several kilometres back to Grindelwald and the valley floor. This is a sport of concentration, balance and gravity.

Acceleration control is the name of the game here, take your hands off the brakes for a second and the beast lurches forward with the force of Ten Tigers, causing you to leave the track and pay an unscheduled visit to a field. Luckily I missed the electric fences.

The feeling of freedom generated by sailing down a peaceful mountainside on a speeding scooter surrounded by walls of rock and ice is difficult to match.

A late afternoon beer announcing itself as “Lager Hell” sets us up for an evening of more fine Swiss wine courtesy of an excellent local dealer with a voice like Madge Bishop who has trouble remembering what year she opened shop (2002 it turns out).

“My habit is my profession”, she tells us as she pours another glass of Pinot Gris.

A nearby eatery provides sustenance and vodka sorbet and it’s time to hit the bars and hang with All The Young Dudes killing time mountain biking while they wait for the ski season to kick off again.

After listening to Iron Maiden for a couple of hours and imbibing a ghastly array of liquids that would kill a gorilla I decide to shuffle back to the hotel to prevent any missing of trains in the morning.

Seconds later my alarm tears through the room and makes me get up and do things. After the peepshow of the last two days the weather finally strips off and bares all.

We leave Grindelwald in blazing sunshine, the icy Ogre peering down ready to stamp on the scurrying humans at the first sign of provocation. The rocky gorge surrounds us again on our descent back to Interlaken, we crane our necks at peaks and waterfalls and the occasional bird of prey floating effortlessly over the forest.

Two hours later on the quiet, smooth, ultra-efficient Swiss trains and we arrive at the historic capital of Bern.

A quick lunch at the plush Hotel Allegro sees us off into the winding, bustling streets of this gorgeous mediaeval citadel.

Founded in the 12th Century on a peninsula of the fast flowing Aare, copper green in colour from the glaciers upstream, the city required several sets of walls to cope with rapid expansion before the architects finally submitted (presumably muttering) to progress.

Bern’s founder, Berchtold V of zähringen, felled the forests covering the peninsula to provide timber for the buildings and then went off hunting declaring that the first kill of the hunt would name the new settlement.

The kill was a bear, of which there are many adorning the buildings, fountains and signs, and even the odd live one residing in the city’s famous Bear Pit.

Bern is a city of fountains; there are over a hundred in total, each with fresh, drinkable water, including a fun computerised water-play held every day in front of the parliament building. Here children dash around the square trying to avoid a soaking as jets of water shoot from the ground in seemingly random patterns.

My personal favourite is the wonderfully daft Kindlifresserbrunnen, which can apparently either be translated as “Ogre Fountain”, or, more descriptively “Man Eating Babies Fountain”.

Our guide explains that the consumption of the babies is meant to represent the passage of time and the brief flicker of life’s candle, and that mothers sometimes take their children to see the Ogre if they’re being bad on a shopping trip.

A short bus ride takes us to an inventive work of architecture that rightly holds pride of place for Bern in 2005: the brand new Renzo Piano designed Zentrum Paul Klee. Structurally beautiful, this light, natural space holds a large collection of paintings by this wonderful artist, selected from an archive of some 1,500 works donated by the Klee family.

Additionally, the centre features a state-of-the-art auditorium for concerts, theatrical performances and conferences, plus a splendid teaching area for future generations of artists.

The Marketing Director excitedly explains to us (the building having opened a mere fortnight ago at the time of writing) that the concept of the centre reflects the fact that Klee was not just a skilled visual artist, but also a musician, writer and teacher, and that the space is not intended as a mausoleum for Klee, but a living space for his work and the work of others. With over a thousand visitors a day it is certain that these paintings will live on for many years to come.

The sumptuous Kornhauskeller is the dining venue for the evening, a snug, softly lit crypt-like expanse located under the Kornhaus. Attractive staff expertly mix mojitos in the comfy, well-stocked bar as we lounge about waiting to be hungry.

Descend the stairs to the lavishly decorated restaurant and a good Italian menu awaits, complemented by an extensive cellar of some 250 wines.

Conversation over dinner largely centres on the importance of 2005 for the Swiss capital.

The recent opening of the Zentrum Paul Klee coincides with the centenary of the publishing of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, which he discovered whilst under the employ of the Bern Patent Office in the 1900s.

To mark the centenary a number of exhibitions and events that celebrate the life of Albert Einstein are running at the Historiches Museum until April 2006, including a special “Physics Theme Park”, an activity-led exhibition (featuring flying machines, explosions and lots of water) which is guaranteed to get your kids excited about Physics.

In addition, the end of July sees the grand opening of the Stade de Suisse, a world-class (and completely solar powered) sports venue that will bring the Beautiful Game to Bern in style for the finals of Euro 2008.

All cities must combine modernity with history to some extent or other; few do so as successfully as Bern.

The centre teems with fashionable shops and busy daily markets, yet there is still a great feeling of space here, aided in no small part by the city’s population of just 130,000.

Of Switzerland’s key destinations, Zurich is traditionally first for industry, Geneva for business.

Bern is an invitingly compact, relaxed capital, crammed with sights and hard to beat as a jumping off point for the wondrous Bernese Oberland.

Thomson Lakes & Mountains (Tel: 0870 403 0544 or visit www.thomsonlakesandmountains.co.uk) offer holidays to Grindelwald and Bern with prices starting from £395 per person for 3 nights' half-board in the 4 star Hotel Sunstar in Grindelwald including scheduled return flights from Heathrow with Swiss.

The seven night prices start at £595 and can be combined with 3 nights in Bern, for a 10 night stay (7 nights in Grindelwald half-board and 3 nights in Bern b&b) from £764 including scheduled return flights and all transfers.

For further information on Switzerland, please visit www.MySwitzerland.com and for details on flights with Swiss see www.swiss.com/uk