Hike the Swiss Alps
It’s not like I’m lying about that view though, or the fact that I can’t resist whipping out my camera time and time again. Surrounded by jagged, snow-capped mountain peaks, pea-green hills and the prettiest cows I’ve ever seen – seriously, they’re wearing embroidered cowbells around their necks – it’s near impossible to walk around and not feel the urge to capture this sublime, takes-your-breath-away beauty at all times.
I’m huffing and puffing and admiring the view along the Bear Trek, a section of the 5,000-kilometre Via Alpina, a long-distance hiking route that links Monaco on the Côte d’Azur with Trieste on the Italian and Slovenian border. This particular portion of the trail begins in Meiringen, a Swiss village in the Interlaken–Oberhasli administrative district, and ends in Lenk. We’ll only be going as far as Mürren though.
Words of encouragement from our fearless leader, Birgit, ring out across the valley. “Not far to go now,” she calls out to our group of four women, pointing to the chalet-style building in the distance. Considering she hasn’t hiked in her native Switzerland in years, Birgit sure knows her way around these high-altitude tracks. She turns and powers up the incline ahead of us with such ease and lightness I can’t help but feel equal parts impressed and envious.
Trying to match Birgit’s energy levels I soldier on, one foot in front of the other. And she’s right, within 15 minutes we’ve made it to Grosse Scheidegg, a mountain pass that sits at an elevation of 1,962 metres and boasts epic views of the Eiger peak and Grindelwald, a postcard-perfect village in the valley below.
After leaving Meiringen bright and early at around 9am, this is our first major stop for the day, so we settle in for lunch at the Berghotel. With just over six kilometres under our belt (mostly uphill, I should add) we’re suddenly ravenous, and Birgit orders accordingly. An enormous platter of cheeses, cured meats and pickled vegetables arrives first, followed by steaming hot bowls of gerstensuppe, a hearty barley soup served with a side of sausage that proves the ultimate hiking fuel. It’s all washed down with a round of Rivellas, a Swiss soft drink made from milk whey that’s kind of like a healthy version of Red Bull.
And because this is Switzerland, no meal is complete without a hot chocolate and a slice of cake – or, in our case, two slices: pflaumenkuchen, a traditional plum tart, and cremeschnitte, a custard, Chantilly cream and puff pastry creation.
Our bellies well and truly full, we roll out of the Berghotel and make tracks for Grindelwald, all of us grateful the next eight or so kilometres are downhill.
While organising a hiking trip like this by yourself isn’t an impossibly hard task, we’ve been lucky to have a bit of a helping hand. UTracks is a Europe-based active travel company that specialises in walking and cycling itineraries. Offering 450 small group and self-guided tours across almost 50 countries, its aim is to provide travellers with as much – or as little – assistance, flexibility and freedom required in order to best explore the most incredible corners of Europe.
In our case, this means our accommodation along the Bear Trek has been booked in advance (all charming Swiss-style residences with breakfasts included). A welcome pack featuring maps, a guide book, luggage tags and other handy tips is provided. Then there’s my favourite UTracks inclusion: every morning our luggage is picked up from our hotel and transported to the next one. That’s right – there’s no need to haul 23-kilogram backpacks along these tough routes since all we need to take with us every day is a small daypack containing our walking essentials.
You could say it’s hiking made easy. All the stress of finding and booking places to stay overnight is removed, and the already well-marked and well-maintained routes are made all the more navigable thanks to the immense amount of helpful information on offer. As a hiking novice who’s never tackled more than a couple of laps of Melbourne’s Tan track, it’s the ideal entry point to a surprisingly addictive world of switchbacks, false peaks and fancy Kathmandu gear.
After a good night’s sleep at Hotel Kirchbühl, a blindingly gorgeous alpine lodge complete with brightly coloured geraniums cascading over the balconies, I pull on my newly purchased hiking boots – now looking slightly more worn after a day’s worth of trekking – and head down to meet the group for stage two of our journey.
The Grindelwald to Wengen section of the Bear Trek is the most well known, passing by the world-famous Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau mountains. It’s also the busiest part of the trail, and you can’t move more than a couple of hundred metres without hearing a cheerful “grüezi!” (a casual Swiss-German greeting) as someone walks by.
With 16 kilometres ahead of us, and everyone feeling a teeny bit fatigued in the legs, we decide to save about two hours of uphill climbing and catch the train to the small settlement of Alpiglen. It’s worth it for more spectacular valley views, and it’s nice to be able to enjoy the scenery without the worry of tripping over our own feet.
Once off the train the hard slog begins again, although having now properly acclimatised to the altitude and with a couple of good, filling Swiss meals powering us, we find ourselves setting a cracking pace up to Kleine Scheidegg. If it wasn’t for that familiar urge to stop and take a million photos again, we joke, we could set a record pace.
As the gateway to Jungfraujoch – a glacier saddle connecting the Jungfrau and Mönch mountains that’s also known as the Top of Europe – Kleine Scheidegg is swarming with people even though it’s almost the end of the summer season. Home to several restaurants and shops, the historic Hotel Bellevue des Alpes (built in 1840) and a railway station that connects with the Jungfraubahn, it offers plenty to see and do.
Keen to continue our good hiking form, we resist the lure of an ice-cold Rivella, take our snaps of the legendary Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau summits (Kleine Scheidegg is the best place along the trail to capture gorgeous, unobscured shots of the trio) and continue on. Once we have moved through the bustling mountain pass it gets a lot quieter on the trail, and our group of five moves into single file, each of us happy to plod along in silence for a while, simply content with walking in the shadow of these majestic marvels, enjoying nothing more than the region’s natural beauty.
There’s something almost meditative about this particular section; the trees get thicker, the ravines steeper, the path narrower and the views more dramatic. It doesn’t have that classic Swiss feel about it – there’s hardly a cow or flower-adorned house to be seen – but it’s special in its own wild way.
Unsure of just how far we have left on the trail, we turn a corner and spot Wengen in the distance, but a far more welcome sight in the foreground: Restaurant Allmend. This delightful wooden inn is a cosy mecca for skiers during winter, as well as exhausted hikers like us who are in desperate need of a cake break.
We settle in on the balcony, which overlooks the magnificent Lauterbrunnen Valley, and much to our relief Birgit once again takes the lead on food choices. She orders what is fast becoming our staple hiking diet: a cheese and meat platter, cake and hot chocolates. Although this time there’s an added kick: a few cheeky shots of schnapps “to make sure we make it the rest of the way to Wengen”, Birgit justifies.
As delicious mouthfuls of food are shovelled down, schnapps necked and the conversation turns to tomorrow’s plans (an excursion up to the Schilthorn), I can’t help but think that if this is what hiking is all about in Switzerland – walk, eat, admire the scenery, repeat – then sign me up for the next trek. I’m sold!
Swiss Airlines flies from all major Australian cities to Zurich Airport.
For more information on planning your trip to Switzerland, visit the My Switzerland tourism website.
UTracks offers eight-day, self-guided Via Alpina walking tours along the Bear Trek, beginning in Meiringen and finishing in Lenk, from AU$1,450. The price includes accommodation in family-run guesthouses and hotels, daily breakfasts, luggage transfers, an information pack including route notes and maps, a Via Alpina passport and access to an emergency hotline. Any bus or cable car tickets need to be purchased separately. Departure is recommended between June and September.