LEYANNE BAILLIE says hi to Heidi in the Alps
I am not a hiker, and I often get lost trying to find my way around Perth, so if you think a self-guided hiking tour in Switzerland is beyond you, believe me when I say, if I can do it, anyone can.
The Via Alpina is a network of more than 5000km of hiking trails linking Monaco on the Cote d’Azur with Trieste on the Adriatic. The trails are open from mid-June to mid-September, extending across eight Alpine countries — France, Italy, Monaco, Liechtenstein, Germany, Austria, Slovenia and Switzerland. The routes are distinguished by five coloured trails.
I am navigating part of the Green trail through the Bernese Oberland in Switzerland. The routes are split into one-day hikes and are clearly signposted from start to finish. You can recognise the Via Alpina hiking route by the red and white tip on each sign. The signposts display the time it will take to walk to each destination and are unbelievably accurate on my three-day journey across some of the most beautiful countryside I have seen.
My adventure begins as I transfer from my Swiss Air flight in Zurich. An hour’s train ride brings me to Lucerne, where I change train for another hour’s journey to Meiringen in the canton of Bern. A Swiss Travel pass allows me jump on all public transport across the country without requiring a reservation.
After my 22-hour journey I should be ready for a nap but the Lucerne to Meiringen route takes me past dramatic scenery that is too good to miss. Rolling green hills, jagged, snow-capped mountains, swathes of pine forests and breaks in the trees revealing wooden chalets straight out of my childhood-favourite novel, Heidi. And all of this stunning scenery is reflected in the aqua-blue Alpine waters of the lakes.
The Parkhotel Sauvage is a five-minute walk from Meiringen train station. I am about to check in when I hear a very loud symphony of bells coming from the street. Talk about perfect Swiss timing.
Each autumn, local farmers gather their cattle and march them down from the mountain pastures to spend the winter on lower grounds. I see a herd of about 20 cows, each wearing a floral crown and traditional collar with giant bell around its neck.
The noise is incredible, I don’t know how the cows aren’t deaf. I soon learn that Swiss cows are used to hearing bells because they wear them while on the mountainside so the farmer can find any of the herd who stray too far.
After a good night’s sleep, the first route starts in Meiringen, home to the Sherlock Homes museum. Conan Doyle set his story The Final Problem in the area, controversially killing off his hero detective and then resurrecting him after a public outcry. The town also claims credit for inventing that egg-white and sugar confection, the meringue.
The trail covers 22.9km and my map shows it will take eight hours 30 minutes to reach Grindelwald. I feel this is too ambitious for my first hiking venture and take the post bus to Hotel Rosenlaui, trimming three hours and 15 minutes, and a very steep climb, off my journey. The bus departs from Meiringen train station and makes various stops before reaching Grindelwald, so you can tailor your hike to suit your abilities. Another option would be to take the bus to the highest point at Grosse Scheidegg, then a two-hour 40-minute wander down the other side will bring you to Grindelwald.
Hotel Rosenlaui welcomed its first guests almost 230 years ago and still retains its old-world charm. I am tempted to order a coffee and sit and enjoy the view but decide I should get on my way. I start the climb towards Grosse Scheidegg, and a quick check of the signpost tells me that is two hours and 35 minutes away. The trail leads me up and around winding paths, passing bubbling streams, lush vegetation and traditional chalets, with the imposing Wetterhorn mountain towering in the distance and the sounds of cow bells tinkling in the air.
The trail slopes gently upwards, is easy under foot and clearly marked. Whenever it seems there is more than one direction to go, I follow the red/white/red stripes that are marked on the rocks, trees or pathways. Further in there are a few steep inclines and I feel my legs starting to burn and my heart thumping. But, slowing my pace, deeply breathing in the crisp air and the anticipation of what magnificent view is around the next bend helps me on my way.
Bang on signpost schedule, I see the Berghotel at the top of Grosse Scheidegg. I’m sure it’s psychological but this seems the steepest climb yet, my thighs feeling every last 10 minutes of the final steps. However, I make it to the top and have worked up quite an appetite.
The menu is hearty and on recommendation I choose gerstensuppe, a thick and creamy barley soup, studded with pieces of salty speck, served with a juicy smoked sausage on the side. Rustic local food at its best. A slice of zwetschgen wahe (plum tart) satisfies my sweet tooth and I’m fuelled up for the next leg of my journey.
Being a hiking novice, I think the downward trek will be a much easier part of the day but I am mistaken. Going down takes a lot more concentration and hammers the toes and balls of my feet. It’s still an enjoyable experience but I’m working up more of a sweat than I expected.
The holy trinity of the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau come clearly into view on this side of the trail, and there are layers upon layers of texture and colour wherever I look. I pass a couple of charming chalets decorated with flowers. On closer inspection I find two fridges filled with freshly made cheese, an honesty box for payment and information about the cows who provided the milk for the cheese. Sure beats nipping to the IGA.
As more and more wooden chalets come into sight, I know Grindelwald is close and a quick check of my watch tells me I’m still on schedule. I finally see the Hotel Kirchbuhl in the distance. Again, my legs are starting to feel like they can go no further but I push on and climb the steep pathway leading to the hotel.
I find a seat on the terrace, order a Hugo (a delightful aperitif of prosecco, lime, elderflower and mint) and I am rewarded with a spectacular splash of colour as the Sun sets over the Eiger.
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