A trip to Switzerland’s Bernese Oberland with Dad

“It’s amazing that we were in Berlin this morning, and now it’s like we’re in another world”, I said. “Who would have thought that after just a taxi ride, a plane, a train, another train, a third train, and a bus, we’d somehow manage to get somewhere far away!” my dad replied. “And yet, we’re still in Switzerland” said Chris. And that was how we began our trip in Switzerland’s Bernese Oberland.

With my dad in Berlin for a conference the weekend before Father’s Day, I convinced him to spend some extra time letting me tour him around our current home of Switzerland.  After a long internal debate, I settled on a trip to the Lauterbrunnen valley because we loved our first trip there so much, and, more than anywhere else, it captures the essence of Switzerland, making it a great introduction to the country. And what better way to experience the country than to hike Swiss style, where you can disappear into the mountains for days or weeks, but never have to pack, thanks to the comforts provided by the Swiss hüttes. As a biologist,we often think of my dad when we hike, naming all the flowers and bird calls along the way.  In addition to being a fantastic hiking companion/nature walk guide, his recent hobby of photography also meant that we’d have excellent pictures at the end of the trip.

Stepping off the bus in Stechelberg, at the end of the Lauterbrunnen Valley, was like walking into Middle Earth. As we gazed up at the soaring granite cliffs, glaciers peeking over the top, melting snow and ice misting down the rock face in 72 waterfalls, the resemblance to JRR Tolken’s sketch of Rivendell was unmistakable. So we almost weren’t surprised when, in the light of dusk that now lit up the mountaintops in a brilliant pink, we heard the wooden notes of an alphorn drifting towards us, the low sound accompanied only by gushing water from distant waterfalls.

Our guesthouse, the Alpenhof, was a handsome wooden chalet with green shutters and red flowers in the windows that blended perfectly into the scenery.  A converted hotel owned by the incredibly friendly British-Australian couple Marc and Diane, the Alpenhof has every amenity necessary for an exceptional stay in the mountains: a fully equipped hotel kitchen including six fondue sets, a raclette maker, and a shared fridge; a large wooden dining room with a wood burning stove; two floors of guest rooms, each with its own wood stove; comfortable beds, and clean shared bathrooms (five minutes of hot water for 1 swiss frank).

In the entrance hall we found our names written neatly on a large chalk board next to our room numbers. After dropping our bags, Marc immediately offered us his favorite Swiss amber ale and a large stein, which we gratefully accepted and brought out to the deck to sip as we took in the astounding views. Eventually we began to feel the stirrings of hunger and soon joined an animated and very sweet Basque couple preparing dinner in the common kitchen. Boiling our pastas together on the stove, they entertained us with details of their current road trip and relationship, and shared valuable tips about their culture such as the widsom that pinchos are not meant to be eaten as a full dinner. After finishing off a huge bowl of pesto spaghetti with mozzarella and brightly flavored cherry tomatoes we padded upstairs to our room where the tune of thundering waterfalls lulled us quickly to sleep.

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Our open window meant that warm light and melodic birdsong came pouring through as an early morning alarm clock. After a cup of strong coffee and some fresh yogurt we were ready for a full day’s hike. No longer relying on the amazing Swiss transportation to deliver us from one part of Switzerland to another, the rest of this trip was to be on foot.  Three main trails begin at the Alpenhof, one leading straight down the floor of the valley to Trümmelbach Falls and Lauterbrunnen, another leading up to Gimmelwald, Mürren and the Schilthorn (our exhilarating destination on a previous trip), and the third heading across the mountains towards mountain lake Oberhornsee and Hotel Obersteinberg, our third night’s destination.

We set out in the direction of Chirchbalm, a mountain-ringed bowl at the mouth of the river. After a short climb, a gap in the foliage revealed expansive views out over the valley, a ray of sunlight gradually illuminating the scenery below and the paragliders who had already taken the plunge from Mürren above and were now gracefully circling the town. Climbing the colorful flower-lined trail was like a botany class as we stopped to examine each blooming flower we passed. As we climbed higher, mountains started appearing over the ridges, rivulets of white steaming down their dark facades, reminding us that the presence of the mighty Alps like Jungfrau, Eiger, and Monch, loomed near. Shortly before we reached Chirchbalm the trail was closed to repair a washed out bridge. Rather than turn around, we took the only alternative trail towards the Rotstockhütte, which appeared deceptively close on the map.  However, the path turned into a pretty but steep ascent through forests and fields of wildflowers, more than doubling the length of our hike. Out of water and nearly out of steam, the hut finally came into view and the thought of a cold drink immediately renewed our spirits.

Despite the beautiful weather, we were amazed to find ourselves alone at the hut. The owner told us that we were the first people to visit that day. She was equally surprised by the unusually empty trails, expecting only four European travelers to arrive later for an overnight stay at the hut. To us it seemed like great luck, and the serenity plus a round of frosty beer/cider, a wooden platter of fresh local meats, cheeses and bread decorated in flower petals, and a mocha milkshake made by the cows wandering around the meadows around us left us fully revived.

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Reluctant to leave but eagerly anticipating the second leg of the hike along the mountain face, we headed towards Gimmelwald. The snow-covered mountains in the backdrop looked impossibly beautiful, like a computer screen saver, and brilliant wildflowers carpeted the meadows in every imaginable color. It felt like walking through a rainbow, the colors shifting from yellow, to blue, to pink, to multicolored bursts – a mix of orchids, columbine, pansies, lupin, queen anne’s lace, something that looked like it was taken directly out of Dr Seuss’ The Lorax, and many we couldn’t identify, forcing us to stop and exclaim “wow” at almost every step. It was spectacular.

Finally, we descended through patches of alpine forest and open meadow into the quaint village of Gimmelwald, where a cable car came to the rescue of our knees, carrying us the rest of the way down to Stechelberg on the valley floor. Watching us straggle in after 10 hours of hiking, Marc immediately recognized our need for another cold beer. He inquired about our trek and as we continued to list our stops his eyes widened, his face settling into a knowing smile of satisfaction at our indoctrination into those hikers who have intimately experienced the beauty of this magical place. We enjoyed our drinks while continuing to contemplate the beautiful scene around us, a cool, fresh air settling in as the sun fell behind the mountains. That evening we took advantage of the fondue sets in the kitchen, filling up on potatoes, bread, and, in a breach of Swiss protocol, asparagus, all dipped in bubbling cheese and washed down with Fendant wine. Then once again, we fell into bed blissfully exhausted.

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No Swiss hiking trip is truly complete without a night spent in a Swiss mountain hut, so we culminated our trip at the Hotel Obersteinberg, a working dairy farm perched on a mountainside, run by the adorable Ms Von Allmen and open to visitors from June-September. Under a gray sky threatening rain, we left the Alpenhof just after breakfast and set out on the three hour trail to Obersteinberg.

The trail began as a flat path along the riverbank, passing a few houses and berghotels, before steeply climbing over 1,000 meters up the side of the mountain through pine forests, until the trees disappeared and were replaced by alpine meadows full of flowers. As the elevation gained, the clouds cleared, and the number and size of glaciers and waterfalls pouring down the valley walls steadily increased, resulting in a hiker’s Nirvana. Near the hotel the ground cover morphed into the neatly trimmed green grass that indicates the presence of hungry Swiss cows. It wasn’t long before we heard the familiar clang of bells, rounding a corner to find a pack of friendly goats balanced on rock piles around the path, curiously staring at us as we approached. In the background, a few dairy cows stealthily kept an eye on the situation. Determining that we weren’t going to feed them, the pack soon lost interest and headed off in a line down the trail. A couple minutes later we arrived at the hotel, a beautiful rustic chalet with a dining area and kitchen downstairs and dorms above, and an adjacent newer wooden home with private rooms.

We were asked to take our boots off before coming through the door and exchange them for a pair of houseshoes. Our room was on the second floor, up a set of slightly tilted wooden stairs and smelling pleasantly of fresh cut wood. The door opened to a simple but wonderful space. The beds were amazingly comfortable, with down comforters so fluffy they looked like huge pillows, and when we lay down we were astonished by the jaw-dropping view out the two large windows – supine in our feather nest we counted 7 glaciers and 9 waterfalls through the window without even lifting our heads. Part of the hotel’s charm also came from its austerity. There were shared bathrooms with working toilets, but each room was also equipped with two ceramic basins and water jugs for washing up at night. All supplies must be helicoptered in, and there was no electricity, the only evening light coming from candles and a few gas lanterns hanging in the halls.

The weather had cooperated for us, and rain started hammering the roof just as we tested the beds. With a few hours before dinner, this seemed like a sign that it was time for a quick snooze. At 7pm we wandered to the dining room where we found our names written at a candlelit table. We had barely pulled out our chairs when bowls of piping hot potato soup were set in front of us. This was followed by salad, a delicious plate of homemade spaetzle topped with fresh butter and cheese and crunchy onions, and a platter of homemade sausages wrapped in thin slices of tender beef. A complex St Emillion that we had carried with us from Geneva provided a delicate accent to the meal. After finishing our main course, a final dish was served – a fresh merengue in the shape of Bordeaux’s Canelés, covered with Gruyère cream, heavy whipping cream, and a sprinkling of chocolate shavings. A perfect ending to a perfect day. On our way to bed we took a detour past the hotel to a lookout point in search of ibexes, and, seeing none, decided to crawl under our piles of down and indulge in the warm candlelight.

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A pile of bread, homemade mountain cheese, and a steaming pot of coffee (which we quickly refilled) was waiting for us the next morning. At 8am, we were nearly the last group out the door, the others eager to take advantage of the blue sky that had reappeared overnight. After packing up our bags we took one more trip to the lookout point. The hills still vacant, we turned down a new trail that formed a loop with the trail we had ascended, taking us back down to Stechelberg. Our descent was nearly thwarted by the Stechelberg Tourism benches, each perfectly placed among the pines or meadows to provide a view of any number of glaciers and waterfalls, calling out for us to instead stay for a lazy day of meditation with a cold drink and a picnic.

The hike was just as magnificent as the previous days’ journeys, winding through thick evergreens with ferns and moss covering nearly every low surface. We hoped to linger in this idyllic setting but gravity pulled us down the mountain all too quickly. Before we knew it we were reluctantly back on a bus, then a train, then another train, and another train, and finally a bus, and re-enetered the real world.

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