It takes me a while to realise why our bus has slowed. We’re on an early morning journey along a twisting road in the western slopes of the Bernese Alps. The shaded verges are full of dark, dewy thickets of spruce trees, and above them, already washed in sunshine, are gnarled buttresses of pink-grey rock so high that you have to squeeze to the window to see their tops. Our bus has been crawling along at walking speed for the past minute or so for no clear reason. It’s only when I stand and peer past the driver that I spot why: we’re behind a cow.
Cows are integral to the shorthand imagery of the Swiss Alps. They’re on the hilltops, on the brochures and on the chocolate. Even in a landscape as capacious as this, low wooden farmsteads still dot the slopes wherever you look, and each of them remains reliant on the tuft-chewing, cheese-giving cows. The animal currently trudging ahead of our bus has, it appears, seen a fair few summers. Its vast butterscotch-and-cream rump sways heavily as it moves up the road, admirably blasé about the big yellow vehicle at its backside.
The driver treats it with Hindu-like reverence. A further minute ticks by, but there’s no horn-honking. The cow plods forward and we keep pace. Only when it opts to amble away from the road, do we pick up speed again — and this in Switzerland, where public transport delays are tantamount to sacrilege. The Bern region might be as Swiss as fondues and army knives, but out here the precise urban momentum of Geneva and Zurich feels a long way off.
And so it should. Archetypal components of alpine culture are everywhere, and not just in bovine form. The wild meadows are lush and flower-specked and the mountains themselves are sculpted on a titanic, cinematic scale. For centuries now the area has helped attract climbers, hikers and Grand Tour-style travellers. It’s a region greedily endowed with dozens of mighty peaks, among which are three of Europe’s most infamous: the Mönch, the Jungfrau and the notorious Eiger, a trio of names that still evokes thoughts of leather boots, hemp ropes and woollen trousers.
Almost every thrill-seeking mountaineer of note has found themselves in this airy pocket of the country at some point over the last 200 years. And even when, like me, you’re not intending to haul yourself up a sheer wall of treacherous limestone, it adds a sepia-tinged sense of heritage to any visit. I’ve come for four days of hill-walking, and I’m delighted when I learn my companion for the first of these day treks will be a local man named Ole, a 79-year-old member of the legendary Swiss Alpine Club.
We’re walking from the minor summit of First to the highland area of Schynige Platte. This 10-mile route is one of the best known in the Bernese Alps. Long stretches of ascent make it a reasonably tough undertaking, but it also grants deep, fully unfolded mountain views along its entire length. On a day like today, when the sky is a fierce cirrus-brushed blue and the last of the buttercups are still quivering in the breeze, the walk is a world-class proposition.
“You see the range across the valley?” says Ole, as we ride the morning gondola up to the trailhead. He’s pointing towards the Eiger, and the giant ice-capped belt of mountains of which it forms a part. I’ve found it hard to look at little else since waking up, I tell him. “OK, well it’s also a very important watershed. Everything coming down on this side of the ridge flows into the Rhine and, eventually, the North Sea. On the other side, the meltwater joins the Rhone, and runs down through France into the Mediterranean.”
We’re essentially looking at one of Europe’s most important rooftops. But as we begin the walk itself, climbing a thin path into the high pastures, it quickly becomes apparent that this is no neatly pitched landscape. The dozens of mountains spilling out around us are wild and irregular things, warped and sharpened by millions of years of tectonic and glacial activity. Here a colossal, cloud-troubling axe blade of sedimentary rock; there a prodigious black whaleback of land, its vast snow grooves as white as alpine milk.
In the distance to the south stands Finsteraarhorn, the very highest peak in the Bernese Alps. It appears as a haughty isosceles of ice and granite reaching into the sky. Today, there’s a slight grainy haze in the air, which makes the mountain look unreal, but it’s the very summit on which, almost 160 years ago, a group of freshly ascended Victorian-era British adventurers vowed to start a dedicated association for alpinists — the Alpine Club, the world’s first mountaineering club.
Ole has been exploring these mountains since he was 10. He walks with the steady, goatish gait of the experienced climber, and takes clear pleasure from the surrounds. His observations are always succinct — he points out layers of ancient rock folded over like millennia-old dough, and explains how the frothy yellow flowers known as Lady’s Mantle grow best in the shade. “Look! There. A falcon,” he says later, directing my eyes to a silhouette high above the path. “It’s hovering, searching for mice. It sees more than us.”
After several hours of skirting lakes and slow-footing our way around steep corries we reach a high-altitude hikers’ hut. Ole orders Alpkäse (raw and pungent ‘alp cheese’) and glasses of valley-brewed beer. “Only two more hours to go”, he smiles. “We can rest.”
Through the window, pine slopes tumble downwards in skewed patterns of shade and sunshine, but on the wall a framed photo shows the same hut in winter. Almost entirely blanketed by snowdrift, the building is invisible apart from the very apex of its roof. The picture is notice that, regardless of how powerful the mountain tourist industry has become, nature still holds the cards.
The three peaks
The seasons here affect more than just the snow cover. For those intent on conquering the fabled north face of the Eiger, the chosen time of year can mean everything. Ice fills the cracks in the rock-face over winter, making the surface sturdier, while in summer the same rocks become looser and more prone to crumbling. Early the next morning, while I’m gazing up at the face’s long ledges and crevices, I’m told in low tones that four Romanian climbers have been stranded halfway up the vertical 1,800m drop all night.
It’s a reminder of the paradox of the mountain. The north face is compellingly photogenic in its height and breadth, but it’s as unforgiving as it is beautiful — 69 people have died on the climb since the 1930s. “The Eiger is special,” explains Priska, the young guide joining me on my second, far shorter walk the next day. “When I see the three mountains together — Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau — I see them as a team. But the Eiger is the boss.”
If Ole gave me a taste of the region’s older values, Priska is a modern outdoor enthusiast, hooked on paragliding and trail-running. “I like listening to Florence and the Machine on the mountains,” she tells me. “It’s the right sort of sound.”
The 90-minute Mountain View Trail we’re following is well suited to walkers of all levels. The backdrop is the main draw — a cleaved alpine panorama spilling away to the east — but the forests and meadows we’re walking through are fresh with life, busy with grasshoppers and edelweiss, ferns and wild blueberries.
By the time we reach Mürren, the car-free village that marks the trail’s end, Priska has shared her tips on everything from yodelling (“It’s best to do it early in the morning, into the dawn”) to base-jumping. Later, I walk further down the valley to the even smaller settlement of Gimmelwald. Among the logpiles and window-boxed houses, I chance upon a sign announcing ‘Europe’s First Unattended Self-Service Village Shop’. A Swiss franc in an honesty box buys me an apple, and I head back down the mountain.
The valley floors are studded with efficient little towns full of gear stores and half-board hotels, but the region has a surprisingly vigorous history. There was bloodshed here in the Middle Ages, for example, when Protestant reformers sweeping the country encountered stiff Catholic resistance among the Bernese population. One of the first of the so-called ‘wars of religion’ followed, with three local ringleaders being publicly executed. Their ashes were then tossed to the mountain winds to prevent their being martyred.
Such grisliness seems incongruous the next day, when a series of short, punctual train trips — and the aforementioned cow-slowed bus ride — deposits me at Rosenlaui Gorge. The morning is fresh and bud-green, with the landscape seeming to exhale the effects of the overnight rainfall.
“Just our way of washing the mountains for the tourists,” quips Martin, my new walking companion. A former winter sports instructor, he wastes no time in pointing out the giddying slope that hosts the famous annual Lauberhorn race — “the world’s ultimate downhill run”. Partway down, a natural ramp in the land is known for sending all but the most skilled skiers hurtling out of control.
On a very different note, it’s explained, this is a part of the region with links to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who, along with other habitual continent-wanderers such as Byron and JMW Turner, felt a pull from the Bernese Alps. Fittingly, our walk today curves up to the little-visited mountaintop plain of Hochmoor before heading down again to Meiringen, a resort popularised in the 19th century.
There are yellowing maples on the lower parts of the walk, giving way to dense fir thickets further up. Foxes, chamois and ibexes all make their homes here on these wooded hills, although the morning around us is utterly quiet as we twig-crunch our way upwards. When the trees thin, however, the soft arrhythmic clank of nearby and far-off cow-bells becomes a constant soundtrack to our progress. The ringing carries an almost hypnotic quality, amplified by the great belly of the valley below.
We continue on up through mushroom-filled woodland then stop to stuff ourselves on wild blueberries. There’s not a soul on Hochmoor but the two of us, so after a couple of hours tracking back down through the deserted forest on a steep old herding trail, the relative bustle of Meiringen comes as a jolt. The town bills itself as the birthplace of meringues, and the high street bakeries are overflowing with the things, but I settle instead for the more restorative offerings of the bar at Parkhotel du Sauvage. It’s been that kind of walk.
Close to Holmes
More than 120 years earlier, Arthur Conan Doyle stayed in this very hotel. The writer was so taken with the drama of the surrounds that he sent his most famous fictional character plummeting to his presumed death on the town outskirts. The Reichenbach Falls — where Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty fell in a fatal embrace — still thunder away close to Meiringen, and I catch the century-old funicular up to their top.
Looking down at the 120m drop, the notion of tumbling into the torrent below is, frankly, terrifying. The falls form a precursor to my final walk, a very different proposition to the previous three. With Pascal, a young guide who grew up in the Swiss flatlands and moved here to follow his love of the mountains, I head out to the remote valley of the Lower Aare Glacier. The walls of its long, V-shaped gorge are almost sheer and threaded with waterfalls, but this is more than just a theatre for nature. For many years, the high pass at the valley head provided the region with its only passable trading route to the south: cheese and cattle would head towards the Med, while olive oil, salt and wine would travel the other way.
It takes us about three hours to walk along a largely flat, ribbon-like trail from the pass to the glacier itself. Again, there’s no one else around — the Bernese Alps may be time-honoured tourist territory, but you don’t have to look far to avoid the crowds. Company along this particular route comes courtesy of dozens of thumb-sized green frogs, who stare blankly as we pass, and the high-pitched whistles of unseen marmots (large squirrels).
We clatter and climb over a final stretch of moraine to reach the ice. It’s an extraordinary up-close encounter: our own private audience with a frozen behemoth. The glacier’s body, curving far up into the valley, is thick and debris-covered, but its large snout is a magical glassy blue. There are several 5m-high tunnels leading into its glistening depths, carved by water. We step inside one and lay our hands on the ice-grotto walls, open-mouthed in awe and sending echoes around the cave as we laugh at the unlikeliness of our surrounds. It is some finale to the trip.
At a small supermarket later that evening, the cashier hands me my purchase with a polite “danke schön, merci”. Over the past few days I’ve heard this form of thanks, a bilingual nod to Switzerland’s interlaced place in European culture. The Bernese Alps themselves are no less mixed in their natural, historical and geographical influences. And the cows? If they’re lulled with views like these all year, you can forgive them for taking their time.
Top Bernese Treks
Lowdown: A half-day walk in the Gstaad region, granting exceptional views of the rugged Gastlosen range. The route takes you over the Hugeligrat ridge and up to the Hundsrügg before reaching the pastures of Sparenmoos. It’s possible to hire scooters for the return back down to Zweisimmen.
High point: The panorama summit of the 2,000m-high Hundsrügg.
Starting point: The Rellerli cable car station and restaurant.
Best for: Families with teens. Toboggan runs and climbing walls can be incorporated. gstaad.ch
Engstligenalp to Unter dem Birg
Lowdown: A fairly unique waterfall walk near Adelboden, giving the chance to follow a steep (but safe) footpath that leads down along the famous Engstligenalp Falls. The flatter sections lead through flower meadows and forests.
High point: The falls themselves. At 600m in length, they’re the second highest in Switzerland.
Starting point: Catch a cable car up to Engstligenalp from Unter dem Birg in the valley below.
Best for: Those in search of a testing short hike. engstligenalp.ch
Iffigsee mountain trail
Lowdown: A five-hour, 10km circular mountain trek in the Lenk region, which takes in the deep-blue Iffigsee lake (located within the spectacular nature reserve of Gelten-Iffigen), as well as the peak of Iffighorn and the pretty Alpine meadows of Hohberg, which look their best during the summer months of July and August.
High point: The superb views from the top of the Iffighorn.
Starting point: The town of Iffingenalp, which is also where the walk ends.
Best for: Nature lovers with stamina. lenk-simmental.ch
Published in the Bern guide, distributed with the May 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)