The joys of lacing up your boots for a hiking trip in the foothills of Switzerland’s
One of the jokers in our group is singing Climb Every Mountain as we lace up our hiking boots, a somewhat larky ditty in view of the snow-capped peak ahead, which is ominously nicknamed The Ogre.
I’m on a four-day walking holiday through Bernese Oberland in search of Swiss bliss: fine wines, fresh Alpine air and an easy trek or two along ancient drovers’ paths to remote valleys filled with docile cows collared with tinkling bells.
But there it is, the north face of the Eiger, a slab of sheer rock some 5,900ft (1,800m) high and one of the world’s most dangerous ascents.
Fortunately, we’re not going to scale it, just admire the plunging cliffs, which we do as I arrive with friends in Grindelwald, the heartbeat of Swiss alpine hiking.
The village is lorded over by the spectacular ‘three sisters’ of Swiss mountains – the Eiger, Jungfrau and Monch – and our gentle treks are across their lower slopes.
Peak district: Roderick Gilchrist enjoys a four-day walking holiday through Bernese Oberland, basing himself in Grindelwald village in the Alps (pictured)
There are 300 trails in these mountains, so the full range of abilities are catered for, but most hikers opt for an easy six miles a day broken up with refreshing lunches of raclette cheese and gluhwein (mulled wine) at charming auberges (inns/hotels).
And that’s the way we’re doing it. Before we start, though, we take a ride in comfort on the Express Gondola from Grindelwald’s new £400 million terminal to the top of Jungfrau, 13,000ft (4,000m) above the valley floor.
Jungfrau means young bride – so-named because the peak is always cloaked in virgin snow. Our guide, Doris Vas Grud, leads us on to a viewing platform to experience the spectacular panorama from this eagle’s nest. ‘Welcome to the top of Europe, the highest railway station in the world,’ she says.
It’s a fine day with great views into the distance, while behind us the Swiss have built a mini-village with restaurants and gift shops to cater for visitors at the peak.
Roderick describes Grindelwald as ‘the heartbeat of Swiss alpine hiking’
It’s 14F (-10C) at this height and snow is falling. Doris explains: ‘If it falls on the Jungfrau it will enter the Rhine and come out in the Med. If it falls on the Monch it ends in the Rhone and the North Sea.’
We need warming up. Luckily, fondue classique – herb-flavoured cheese with potatoes and mixed pickles – is simmering on a burner at our table in the restaurant.
As we eat, we are treated to a show as the orange sails of a hang-glider float serenely by. Those brave enough to challenge the mountain gods like this launch themselves from the Piz Gloria restaurant on the peak of another nearby mountain, the Schilthorn, which doubled as Blofeld’s lair in 1969 James Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
The hang-gliders may ride the thermals like birds of prey, but Doris warns: ‘There are eagles around, and if they have young they will attack the sails. If they rip the silk with their talons… kaput!’
Secret service: The Piz Gloria restaurant doubled as Blofeld’s lair in 1969 James Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Roderick says that hang-gliders launch from this spot
Fortified by fondue, we descend – thank goodness – 6,500ft (2,000m) by a cog-wheel railway to begin our hike on a high plains path.
The three-hour trek winds past waterfalls and meadows ablaze with pink alpine roses. Then we move through the woody perfume of sun-dappled pine forests where we startle grazing young deer. While some of us are no longer in the first flush of youth, we find the going only slightly more arduous than a walk in the park – though the scenery is more stimulating.
On previous hikes I have moved to new inns every night where luggage is sent ahead, but for this adventure I’m based at Grindelwald’s wooden chalet-style Schweizerhof. It stands in mature grounds with plenty of Heidi kitsch – visitors are greeted by a life-sized wooden cow, the horned head poking from a fake mountain byre.
Roderick’s trek winds past waterfalls and meadows ablaze with pink alpine roses. Above are the falls at St. Beatus Caves, which lie in another part of the Bernese Oberland region
Grindelwald is lorded over by the spectacular ‘three sisters’ of Swiss mountains – the Eiger, Jungfrau and Monch (above)
Grindelwald is no distance from Lauterbrunnen (above), where Tolkien, while on a hiking trip, found the inspiration for his dark fairytale The Lord Of The Rings
The next day, below cloudless skies, we hit the trail to Lake Bachalpsee high above the other side of the valley.
From there, the three snow-capped mountains look so cosmic they were filmed for the Star Wars movies and used to depict the alien planet of Alderaan. We then have a choice of either a gentle walk down the mountain or a gondola ride – although adrenalin-junkies may prefer a zip-wire that catapults you downhill at 60mph.
Grindelwald is no distance from Lauterbrunnen, where Tolkien, while on a hiking trip, found the inspiration for his dark fairytale The Lord Of The Rings.
‘Watch out and you may see Gandalf,’ jokes Doris. Well, I didn’t see him or any Hobbits… but what a wizard adventure.
One-way flights to Zurich cost from £76, or to Geneva from £54 (swiss.com). Swiss Travel Pass offers unlimited travel by rail and bus – both national and local – plus ferries and boat cruises, at £207 for a three-day second-class ticket (mystsnet.com). Walking holidays are offered by Inntravel (inntravel.co.uk). For more information, visit myswitzerland.com.