For years, stories in newspaper Sunday “Travel” sections were my source of inspiration to travel to places where I had never gone before, as well as to re-visit familiar and much-loved stops on past trips.
These days such stories sometimes prompt me to sit back and reminisce about a journey taken long ago.
And that is what happened on Easter Sunday when I read “Tracks and treks the key to Swiss Alps” in the San Francisco Chronicle by its former “Travel” editor, John Flinn.
Flinn sets up his story with a “hook” that is likely to hook readers into following in his footsteps across the Swiss Alps:
“The recipe for footloose wandering in the Swiss Alps is almost Zenfully simple: All you need is a topographic map, a pair of hiking boots and a rail pass.
“The celebrated rooftop of Europe is crisscrossed by both walking trails and train lines, and combining the two makes for a car-free, carefree alpine odyssey.”
Read on and you’ll learn that he and his travel companion hiked inn-to-inn in the Berner Oberland section of Switzerland, but at times let trains and funicular railways carry them through, up, and down the mountains.
When I visited in that region nearly ten years ago, a London physician on “holiday” sitting at an adjoining table at dinner in the little hamlet of Gimmelwald told my wife and I about his trek from place-to-place on foot in the Alpine countryside. He was more adventurous than we, hiking several miles in this region of the Alps over the last several days despite having having an artificial hip.
While hoofing it mile-after-endless-mile among the cows in “Heidiland” is one way to soak up the Swiss scenery, there’s an easier way to have a “Sound of Music” experience in that country’s fabled mountains without working up that much of a sweat.
As Flinn’s story notes, Zurich is a good “jumping off” spot. From there, a two hour or so train ride will bring you to Interlaken, the largest burg in the Berner Oberland region.
Along the way you can hop off the train and make your way to towns above the rail line. And you’ll see “locals” and tourists de-train with hiking poles and set off on day or long hikes.
From Interlaken you can travel up-valley by train to Lauterbrunnen and switch to a train, or bus and “mountain lift” gondola, that will haul you up into the mountain towns.
Flinn spent part of his Swiss Alps trip at auto-free Murren, which is “The Big City” compared to the itsy-bitsy Gimmelwald, just down the mountain, where we rented the “basement” apartment from Rick Steves’ good friends, Olle and Maria Eggimann, who at the time our visit were local school teachers.
With only three days to spend there during our month-long trip across Europe, we had just two full-days for sightseeing.
On the first of those days, we rode the gondola up to Murren, and then switched to another lift line that carried us up to the top of the Schilthorn where the 1969 James Bond movie, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, was filmed.
It was a sunny day and the views north beyond the mountains and south to the major peaks (Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau) were well worth braving the cool breeze on the observation deck.
We took the lift back down to Murren for an al fresco lunch with a view on the terrace of a local restaurant, bought some food at the local “supermarket,” and then worked off the high-caloric lunch by walking a half-hour down the mountain to our Gimmelwald digs.
The following day we borrowed hiking poles from Olle, jumped into the gondola headed to Murren, and hopped of it and onto a funicular railway which carried us up another few hundred feet before we set off on a 4 mile hike that looped across the face of the mountain and back.
Unlike hiking at home in California, or anywhere else where we’ve “booted” up and down hill in the U.S., we didn’t have to carry lunch with us. The Swiss are a lot smarter than we are — they place restaurants at scenic spots along the trail so you can fortify yourself with wine, beer, potatoes, cheese, dried meat, or pastries (or all of the above) during your hike. So about a half way or so into our trek, at noon we stopped at one of these scenic “refueling depots” to scarf up lunch.
Throughout our hike we had continuous views of the major peaks.
Signs along the trail explained the history of mountain climbing in the area (which goes back at least 150 years) and made it easy for us to find our way.
About 4 pm we trundled back down the hill to our digs for a cup of tea and some relaxation before dinner and packing up for our departure for France in the morning.
As John Flinn points out in his article, the Swiss Travel Pass does not cover every rail or gondola line in Switzerland since many are privately-owned. We found the same to be true with the rail passes we had purchased from Rail Europe, but which let us buy tickets at a good discount when we didn’t get a “free ride.”
The German national railway Website’s English version is good for checking routes and schedules. I’ve used it for planning purposes, even though I purchased rail passes and train tickets through Rail Europe.
If you’ve only have a short time to spend in the Berner Oberland, consider staying in the Murren-Gimmelwald area where these small “towns” probably have fewer visitors than cows.
(If you’re headed “across the Pond” to “The Continent” this year, be sure to read our “Tips For Traveling to Europe” article.)