South of Bern and Luzern lies the grand Alpine heart of Switzerland, a massively impressive region of classic Swiss scenery – high peaks, sheer valleys and cool lakes – that makes for great hiking and gentle walking, not to mention world-class winter sports. The BERNESE OBERLAND is the most accessible and touristed area, and also the most spectacular, best known for a grand triple-peaked ridge of Alpine giants at its core – the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau, cresting 4000m. However, the Oberland takes in a vast tract of territory, and the approaches to the high mountains have their own, less daunting pleasures: the twin lakes of the Thunersee (with the atmospheric old town of Thun at its head) and the Brienzersee (with Brienz) offer Alpine horizons and beauty enough to merit a stop of their own. Between the two, the bustling town of Interlaken is the main transport hub for the region, but the sheer volume of tourist traffic passing through can make it a less than restful place to stay. Coming from the big cities, many people aim for Interlaken as a supposed necessary stop, but it truthfully has little to offer beyond dozens of hotels and a handful of souvenir shops, and you’d do better to head straight for the mountains.
On a visit to the region, and stunned by the natural drama all around, the composer Felix Mendelssohn wrote: “Anyone who has not seen the scenery which surrounds Interlaken does not know Switzerland.” Once you’ve seen it, you’ll know what he means. Arguably the single most captivating place in the entire Alps lies just a short way south of Interlaken – the gorgeous Lauterbrunnen valley, with the resorts of Wengen and Mürren perched on plateaux above providing excellent winter skiing and summer hiking. Grindelwald is another bustling resort in its own valley slightly to the east. Both offer access to one of Switzerland’s top excursions, the amazing rack-railway journey winding up through spectacular mountain scenery to the snow- and ice-bound Jungfraujoch, a windswept col nestling at 3454m just below the peak of the Jungfrau itself, and the site of the highest train station in Europe. Further west, the Oberland rolls on and on through little-visited wooded valleys and pastureland, out to the borders of the German-speaking area, where sits probably the most famous name in the region: Gstaad.
Tourist offices, centred in Interlaken but scattered throughout virtually every town, control the Oberland’s thousands of chalets and private rooms, most of which, at higher altitudes anyway, close along with hotels and many resort shops and services in the quiet “between-seasons” of April–May and October–November. The flipside of this is that hoteliers and many chalet owners concoct high-season prices, generally applicable in late December and throughout February, which can be much higher than the rest of the year. Tourist offices can also provide details of the region’s numerous mountain huts (generally open June–Sept), which offer hikers or ski trekkers a bed and simple comforts in the wilds of nature. The co-ordinating Bernese Oberland tourist office has administrative offices at Jungfraustrasse 38, CH-3800 Interlaken (033/823 03 03, www.berneroberland.com & www.berneroberland-hotels.ch).
It’s hard to overstate just how stunning the LAUTERBRUNNEN VALLEY is – even hardened Alpinists shrug their shoulders and call it the most beautiful valley in Europe, bar none. An immense U-shaped valley (the world’s deepest) with bluffs on either side rising 1000m sheer, doused by some 72 waterfalls, it is utterly spectacular. Staying in Interlaken or Grindelwald comes a very poor second to basing yourself in or above Lauterbrunnen for your time in the Oberland. However long you stay, two hours or two weeks, you won’t want to leave.
Lauterbrunnen village itself lies on the valley floor, while the slopes above nurture two of Switzerland’s most appealing little resorts. Mürren to the west is the transfer point for the dramatic cable-car ride up to the Schilthorn peak, while Wengen to the east is a stop on the train line up to Kleine Scheidegg and the Jungfraujoch. Both of them are car-free, perched on narrow shelves of pasture way above the world below, and both offer some of the best hiking and skiing to be had in the Alps.
The road south from Interlaken shadows the train tracks and the Lütschine river through Wilderswil and on into the deep countryside. Cliffs close in either side as you reach Zweilütschinen: the Schwarze Lütschine tumbles in from Grindelwald further east, while the road and railway continue south alongside the rushing Weisse Lütschine (named “white” for its foaminess) through a charming wooded gorge. At the point where the valley opens up, airily broad, sunlit and impossibly picturesque, you enter the busy little village of LAUTERBRUNNEN. The train station here is the junction point for journeys up to Wengen and on up to the Jungfraujoch.
The wealth of opportunity for sightseeing and exploring around and about is virtually limitless. At the entrance to the village is a funicular cresting the west wall of the valley: this serves Grütschalp, from where a cliff-edge train – one of the most scenic rides in Switzerland – trundles its way to Mürren. You might, however, prefer to follow the steep path up to Grütschalp (rising 690m in 2hr), to take advantage of the panoramic stroll alongside the tracks to Mürren (1hr 10min).
Just before Lauterbrunnen, precipitous roads and footpaths wind up west to Isenfluh, an isolated little hamlet on a tiny patch of green alp, from where little-trod hiking trails fan out and a cable-car rises to the Sulwald alp, at the foot of the distinctively jagged Lobhörner crag (2566m).
Just beyond the southern end of Lauterbrunnen village, the delicate Staubbach falls – at nearly 300m, the highest in Switzerland – gush out of a sheer cliff, like a lacy decoration on the rugged precipice. It’s a scenic half-hour walk, or an hourly postbus, 3km up the valley to the Trümmelbach falls (daily: July & Aug 8am–6pm; Sept–June 9am–5pm; Fr.10). These impressively thunderous waterfalls – the runoff from the high mountains – have carved corkscrew channels through the valley walls: a stepped catwalk leads you over and around the enclosed, boiling cauldrons of rushing water (up to 20,000 litres a second), which throw up plenty of spray and have gradually eroded the rock into weird and wonderful shapes. From the top, trails from Mettlenalp connect to paths leading to Wengen and Wengernalp.
Lauterbrunnen’s train station is at the northernmost end of the village, directly opposite the Mürrenbahn station. A 200m walk up into the village brings you to the tourist office on the main street (Mon–Fri 8am–noon & 2–6pm; July & Aug also Sat & Sun 8am–3pm; 033/855 19 55, www.lauterbrunnen.ch).
Lots of places offer dorm accommodation. If you go behind the station, cross the river on a tiny bridge and turn right, you’ll come to Matratzenlager Stocki (033/855 17 54; Fr.13) with good dorms in a converted farmhouse and kitchen use. A little before the tourist office and down by the tracks is cosy Valley Hostel (Tél. & fax 033/855 20 08; Fr.20), most rooms with a balcony. There are two campsites, both at the southern end of the village: Jungfrau (033/856 20 10) is on the west bank, while quieter Schützenbach (033/855 12 68) is on the other side, alongside the road to Stechelberg – both also have dorms (Fr.15–20) and rooms (a). Among the hotels are jovial, backpacker-ish Horner (033/855 16 73, fax 855 46 07; a), just beyond the tourist office, whose staff may slash rates to Fr.10 per person for post-9pm check-in if they have space. Beside the station is the Bahnhof (033/855 17 23, fax 855 18 47; b), with cosy, uncomplicated rooms and cooking to match. Silberhorn (033/855 14 71, fax 855 42 13; b–c) is up off the main drag but only a minute from the station, with pristinely quiet rooms – slightly pricier ones with a view. Eating and drinking are best done in the various hotels along the main street: the Horner has bargain pizza/pasta meals for under Fr.13, while the hotel Oberland (Mark and Ursula your hosts) (http://www.hoteloberland.ch/mainframe_e.htm) and Schützen, either side of the tourist office, are solid places for solid fare, both also specializing in afternoon tea with fresh apple strudel. The Horner has Internet access (Fr.12/hr).
Since both Wengen and Mürren are car-free, Lauterbrunnen has built for itself a huge multistorey car park directly behind the train station at the northernmost edge of the village – horrendous though that sounds, the community knows the value of its views, and has ensured both that the car park doesn’t disturb the eye, and that it filters most of the traffic away from the village centre. Parking for a 24-hour day costs Fr.9 (July to mid-Sept), Fr.11/15 (mid-Dec to mid-April weekdays/weekends) and Fr.7 at other times; eight-day equivalents are Fr.59, Fr.76 and Fr.56. Two other small open-air parking areas within the village cost Fr.5–7 per day. Stechelberg has another large parking area at the foot of the Schilthornbahn cable-car (Fr.5/day, Fr.21/week).
Switzerland’s most popular (and expensive) mountain railway excursion is unmissable. Trains trundle through lush countryside south from Interlaken before coiling spectacularly up across either Wengen or Grindlewald’s mountain pastures, breaking the treeline at Kleine Scheidegg and tunnelling clean through the Eiger to emerge at the JUNGFRAUJOCH, an icy, windswept col at 3454m, just beneath the Jungfrau summit. It’s the site of the highest train station in Europe, and offers an unforgettable experience of the mountains. You’d be missing out if you decided against shelling out the exorbitant sums necessary to reach the place.
However, good weather is essential – if there’s a hint of cloud you’d be wasting your time heading up. Check the pictures from the summit, broadcast live on cable TV throughout the region, for an idea of the weather conditions, call the Jungfraujoch weather line (033/828 79 31) or ask your hotel or nearest tourist office for the latest forecasts. Remember, too, that it takes two and a half hours to reach the summit from Interlaken, and weather conditions can change rapidly. Coy though it sounds, even if you plan nothing more adventurous than looking out of the summit station window you should still bring sunglasses with you: the snows never melt up here, and if the sky is blue, the sun’s glare and glitter can be painful.
There are two routes to the top. Trains head southwest from Interlaken Ost along the valley floor to Lauterbrunnen, from where you pick up the mountain line which climbs through Wengen to Kleine Scheidegg; different trains head southeast from Interlaken Ost to Grindelwald, where you change for the climb, arriving at Kleine Scheidegg from the other direction. All trains terminate at Kleine Scheidegg, where you must change for the final pull to Jungfraujoch – the popular practice is to go up one way and down the other.
Currently, the adult round-trip fare to Jungfraujoch from Interlaken is a budget-crunching Fr.159 – the Jungfraubahnen Pass, and the broader Bernese Oberland Regional Pass, both pointlessly stop short at Kleine Scheidegg, requiring passholders to shell out an extra Fr.50 to reach the summit. One way to cut costs is to take advantage of the discounted Good Morning ticket (Fr.120; Eurail Fr.105; Swiss Pass Fr.94), valid if you travel up on the first train of the day (6.35am from Interlaken), and leave the summit by noon (or Nov–April: first or second train plus later departure permitted).
Walking some sections of the journey, up or down, is perfectly feasible in summer, and can also save plenty, with fares from intermediate points along the route considerably lower. The undiscounted Good Morning ticket from Grindelwald is Fr.103, from Lauterbrunnen Fr.102, from Wengen Fr.91, and from Kleine Scheidegg Fr.58. Excellent transport networks and vista-rich footpaths linking all stations mean that with judicious use of a hiking map and timetable you can see and do a great deal in a day and still get back to Interlaken, or even Bern or Zürich, by bedtime.
Stretching east of Interlaken, the Brienzersee (Lake Brienz) is much vaunted as the cleanest lake in Switzerland, beautifully set in a bowl amidst forested slopes, streams tumbling down from on high, overlooked to the south by the Faulhorn (2681m) and to the northeast by the Brienzer Rothorn (2350m), the latter served by a nostalgic old rack railway from the main town of the lake, Brienz. East of Brienz, a tortuous road crosses the Brünigpass into Canton Obwalden, heading for Luzern, while the main road scoots along the valley floor, beside the youthful Aare, to Meiringen, scene of the “death” of Sherlock Holmes and final staging post before the major trans-Alpine routes over the Grimsel and Susten passes.