Michael Cowton enjoys scenic high-level hikes and adrenalin-fuelled high jinks in and around the idyllic Swiss mountain village of Mürren
IT WAS LATE into the afternoon when I eventually arrived at the attractive mountain village of Mürren, and I was immediately struck by the stillness in the air.
The weather had been kind to this part of Switzerland’s Jungfrau region, with extended days of sunshine and blue skies into late Autumn, drawing visitors from all parts of the world, here to enjoy breathtaking views from the many and varied hiking trails that spread like tentacles over the rugged landscape.
Across the Lauterbrunnen Valley, the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau stood proud like sentinels. Only the Eiger had wisps of cloud settled around her flanks, drawn by the mountain‘s very own weather pattern, created by the concave shape of the North Face. I have no idea why mountains are classed as feminine. I appreciate that in many societies, mountains are frozen giants or manifestations of deities. The Tibetans call Everest, the highest mountain of the world, Chomolungma, which translates as ‘Mother-goddess of the Earth’. I find it difficult to find anything even remotely feminine about the Eiger, a mountain that has witnessed so many tragedies, and claimed so many lives. But then, there is something vaguely haunting about her, and her presence is indeed powerful, and certainly intimidating.
Situated on a terrace 1,650 metres above the Lauterbrunnen Valley and at the foot of the Schilthorn peak, car-free Mürren is the highest, continually inhabited village settlement in the canton of Bern. It is reached via the Lauterbrunnen-Mürren Mountain Railway in the form of an aerial cable car as far as Grütschalp and continues as a narrow-gauge adhesion railway. The village is also accessible from Stechelberg. Quintessentially Swiss, I was immediately struck by the attractive, timber-framed houses festooned with canopies of flowers, the brilliant colours only just beginning to lose their lustre.
From my base at the appropriately named Hotel Eiger, which is conventionally situated across from the railway station, it was easy to gain my bearings as I wandered along one of only two roads that lead to the cable car station at the other end of the village. On the upper road, I passed the Alpine Sports Centre, which houses a café, spa and the Tourist Information Centre. Further along was a small ‘foto’ shop, selling tee shirts, baseball caps and a pot pourri of souvenirs. Opposite the shop lies the entrance to the funicular, which ferries passengers to Allmendhubel and the Alpine Garden.
I returned via the lower road to the hotel, and found it impossible to navigate the way to my room! Back at reception, I could either head outside to the sunny terrace and order a beer, or, with a certain level of embarrassment, explain my predicament. I spoke with Susanna Stähli, who runs the hotel with husband Adrian. I was not sure whether it was mirth or mere pity, but she explained that four generations of the Stähli family had each created add-ons to the 4-star hotel. My room was located at the far end of the complex, via a series of stairs, corridors and a television lounge-cum-library, and was, in fact, at the rear of the hotel, so no grandstand mountain panorama for me. I was staying on a half board basis. Dinner each evening was five courses in a dining room resplendent with crisp white tablecloths and silver cutlery. I found the service to be exemplary, the staff friendly and efficient.
The next morning I breakfasted early and walked to the Schilthorn cableway to take an early ride to the Piz Gloria, the iconic, aluminium-clad revolving restaurant featured in the 1960s Bond film ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’. The magnificent 360-degree panorama at the summit of the Shilthorn was staggering, with views across to the triumvirate of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau. I was told that on a clear day one could see as far as the Mont Blanc massif and across to Germany’s Black Forest. Sadly, the tranquillity of the moment was merely fleeting, as hordes of tourists flooded on to the terrace to have their photographs taken beside the permanent exhibition and life-size cut-out of ‘Mr Bond’ himself, George Lazenby. There was little wonder that the mountain is today one of the top attractions of the Jungfrau region. Information panels form the 007 Walk of Fame pay homage to the film’s personalities with photographs, signatures and handprints, each accompanied by a personal message.
I stopped to read what comments had been made by Mr Lazenby: ‘Scoring the role of James Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and doing my first acting part was quite life changing for a motor mechanic, car salesman and model from Australia like me. Tons of fun, as I was fortunate enough to work with the most professional and likeable bunch of filmmakers. With six of the nine-month shooting schedule being at the Schilthorn and staying in a pleasant happy location like Mürren truly made me feel at home and I fondly remember the fantastic views that welcomed me when I awoke each morning.’
Back inside the Piz Gloria café, large screens run looped scenes from the film, and I found it staggering that five decades on, the likes of 007, Blofeld and the evil SPECTRE organisation, which launched its germ warfare plot on the world, still attracted thousands of curious tourists each year.
On the return journey, I decided to alight at Birg, the midway station, and walked out on to the observation deck. From there, I exited on to the Skyline Walk. Constructed from steel and glass with a grated floor, brave souls step on to the cliff walkway and over a vertical abyss as the route heads under the observation platform and cableway, ending below the cableway station, for yet more breathtaking views.
I took the cable car back to Mürren and walked to the centre of the village, where I next took the funicular to the Allmendhubel. From June to September, over 150 types of mountain flora blossom along the Flower Trail. Information panels describe the plants along the 20-minute circular trail around the Allmendhubel. Arrive at the right time of year, and you will be treated to a fine display of giant alpine flowers, including gentians, alpine roses and edelweiss, grasses and oversized insects. I had arrived at the back end of the season, so was happy to step out on to the large sun terrace of the rustic mountain restaurant, which serves wholesome food, including potato soup, cheese and dried meat platters, and pork schnitzel with chips and a salad. After lunch, I walked past the large children’s play area adjacent to the restaurant, and uphill to the small plateau where small groups of hikers had stopped for rest and refreshment. The walk back down to Murren took me around half-an-hour.
Visitors to Mürren who come for the walking are treated to 200km of trails, one of the most popular being the Northface Trail Hike, which begins next to the Schilthorn cable car station and leads towards Spielbodenalp. The trail leads over a stream up to Schiltalp, an ideal spot for a snack break, before continuing in the direction of Blumental and on to Allmendhubel.
Aside from the splendid hiking opportunities, visitors can indulge in a Via Ferrata route from Mürren to Gimmelwald, a route which will undeniably offer even the most experienced adrenalin junkies a thrill to remember. The unusual thing about this particular Via Ferrata is that it leads directly downwards, as opposed to upwards. Covering around 2.2km, it takes around three hours to cover the distance, with an altitude drop of 400 metres. The rock face route involves various challenges, including ladders, a 60-metre long Tyrolean traverse (zipline), and balancing on tightropes. The tour ends with a spectacular ‘Nepal’ suspension bridge, which leads over a 400-metre deep ravine. A good job, then, that one is connected to a solid steel cable from start to finish!
If that is not enough, then you could always try your hand at tandem paragliding. I spent an enjoyable few hours on the hill with the experts from Airtime Paragliding, photographing and videoing a series of flights from Mürren to Stechelberg, either solo or with guests.
It has to be said that although Mürren is somewhat isolated, there are plenty of excursions to be enjoyed further afield by taking one of the cableways to either Lauterbrunnen or Stechelberg. I took the train to Lauterbrunnen and from there to Wengen, where I met with my guides Jana Marggi and Pascall Müller from Jungfrau Region Tourism. We took a short walk to the Wengen–Männlichen aerial cableway, and enjoyed a Royal Ride on the roof of the gondola. The balcony was accessed via a small spiral stairway, and affords spectacular views of the surrounding countryside. Alighting from the gondola, we took the ‘Royal Walk’ summit trail, which peaked at the crown-shaped platform at 2,343 metres, and afforded expansive views over the Lauterbrunnen Valley, Interlaken and Lake Thun, and the ever-present Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau.
It was then time for a spot of summer mountain sledding. A fusion of a winter sledge and a classic motorcycle, the rider sits on the narrow sled, with one hand placed on the upright bar and the other on the hydraulic brake. In order to steer the vehicle, you have to lean to one side or the other. In the Pit Shop we were given a safety briefing, before being handed our protective gear, which comprised a helmet, gloves and elbow pads, the latter which, to be honest, offered hardly any protection whatsoever, but the thought was there. We started our 6km descent close to the restaurant near the gondola station. Pascall took to it like a duck to water, and was soon careering down the road, using his hand for balance as he shot round the tight bends. Jana and I took a more measured approach before we steadily picked up speed, conscious of the dodgy cambers, cracks and potholes in the middle of the single-track road.
We had been warned not to take the cattle grids at speed. The first one was on me before I realised, and as I shot over it the vibration almost shook my teeth out. The hydraulic brake of my ‘Summer Gemel’ squealed each time I approached one of the hair-raising bends, and on a couple of occasions I almost rear-ended my colleagues, but it was terrific fun. The nice thing one was that upon arriving at Holenstein, the middle station between Grindelwald and Männlichen, we left our sledges behind and took one of the small cable cars back up to our start point. The Grindelwald–Männlichen gondola cableway is the third longest passenger-carrying cableway in the world.
After an excellent lunch at the Berggasthaus Männlichen, we headed back down to Wengen and caught the train to Lauterbrunnen, where Jana said her farewells and Pascall and I caught a bus to the Trümmelbach Falls, a first for both of us. From the entrance, we took a lift to a subterranean world, where ten underground waterfalls converge from behind vertical rock walls, carrying upwards of 20,000 litres of meltwater per second from the glaciers. Part of the Lauterbrunnen Valley’s 72 waterfalls, the noise was deafening, the mountain almost shuddering as the torrents of water violently foamed and churned their way downwards, witnessed from a series of galleries and illuminated tunnel openings. The falls actually disgorge over 20,000 tons of boulders and scree each year.
I took my leave of Pascall and caught the bus for the short ride to Stechelberg, and on to the gondola back to Mürren. By the time I was back in the village, the rain, which had begun shortly after our arrival at the falls, had eased. After four days of delightful sunshine, the weather was evidently on the turn. As I sat in the restaurant to enjoy my final dinner at the Hotel Eiger, those views of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau, which I had so much enjoyed each morning and evening through the dining room window, had been obliterated by dark, forbidding clouds. Winter was on its way, and with it, an entirely new atmosphere.
IN A NUTSHELL
WHEN TO GO
Away from the ski season, a good time to visit Switzerland is during the shoulder seasons, between April and June, and September to October, when the weather is at its best, and you should not bump into too many tourists, either
GET ME THERE
Swissair (www.swissair.com) fly to Zurich from London Heathrow, Birmingham and Manchester
The quickest way to reach Switzerland by rail is by Eurostar through the Channel Tunnel to Paris (2 hours 15 minutes). The high-speed TGV (www.sncf.com/en/trains/tgv-lyria) connects Paris with Switzerland, including to Geneva, Lausanne, Zürich and Berne
Check out www.swisstravelsystem.com for a comprehensive insight into money-saving travel passes. Indulge in a Swiss Pass for 4, 8, 15, 22 days or one month of unlimited travel on consecutive days throughout the rail, bus and boat Swiss Travel System network. Alternatively, the Swiss Flexi Pass entitles you to unlimited travel throughout the network during 3, 4, 5 or 6 days of your choice within one month. The Half Fare Card allows unlimited purchase of train, bus, boat and some cable car tickets at half price within the one-month validity
WAKE UP HERE
Hotel Eiger, CH-3825 Mürren. 4 star, family-run hotel directly opposite the mountain railway BLM. Comfortable in traditional style. Indoor swimming pool with Jacuzzi, sauna and solarium. www.hoteleiger.ch
Inghams offers a four-night holiday on a half board basis at the four-star Hotel Eiger in Mürren in the Jungfrau Region, Switzerland, from £838 per person based on two adults sharing in September 2019. Price includes return flights from Manchester to Geneva and airport transfers by rail. To book, visit www.inghams.co.uk/lakes-mountains-holidays or call 01483 791 116
Mürren Tourismus, www.muerren.ch
Jungfrau Region, www.jungfrauregion.swiss/en/summer/
For general travel related topics, go to www.myswitzerland.com
Via Ferrata Murren-Gimmelwald, www.klettersteig-muerren.ch
Airtime Paragliding, www.airtime-paragliding.ch
Summer Gemel, www.summergemel.com
Trümmelbach Falls, www.truemmelbachfaelle.ch
- Main image | Piz Gloria on the Schilthorn | All images | © Michael Cowton/Essential Journeys