Far below the viewing platform on which Anna Hyman stood, spread out like patchwork was a small town nestling between two lakes and green meadows, with a backdrop of mountains, spectacular mountains.
The Harder Kulm is a good starting point for a visit to Interlaken. The funicular that transports lazy tourists like us to the summit of Interlaken’s very own mountain departs close by the town’s Ost station. It takes a mere eight minutes to reach the top.
A short walk away is a very acceptable café/restaurant and terrace from which, a viewing platform has been built. Venture out onto it for the glorious view. It’s easy to pick out the River Aare cutting through Interlaken and the Höheweg with its grand hotels and shops, the Höhematte, and the Kursaal (casino) far below, and in the distance a wall of mighty mountains.
The Grand Tours were under way
Interlaken developed from a small settlement that grew around an Augustinian monastery built on the banks of the River Aare between two lakes – Thun and Brienz. The soil of that alluvial plain was rich and fertile well suited to supporting an agricultural community but in the 17th century the first visitors began to arrive – the Grand Tours were under way.
By the end of the 19th century thanks to the arrival of the railway, lake steamers and better roads tourism had arrived in Interlaken with a vengeance. The Casino and the grand Victorian hotels on the Höheweg were built.
To preserve the best views of mountains several of the fore-sighted town fathers got together to buy a large piece of land (the Höhematte) once owned by the monastery, to stop any future development– a good example of sensible town planning.
Interlaken is an attractive town
Interlaken is an attractive small town – a mix of quaint and modern, town and country – with a good range of shops, cafes, restaurants and hotels. It is also located in the most glorious scenery with easy access to a wide range of walks, lake steamers and railways – both mainline and the incredible Jungfrau Railways.
We were based at the City Hotel Oberland a few minutes’ walk from the Lake Thun steamers and the Interlaken West station. It is a large hotel, one favoured by coach parties but they didn’t disturb us. Our rooms were clean and comfortable, and the reception staff wonderfully friendly and helpful. It has three very different restaurants – one serving Indian cuisine, another featuring Swiss specialities and our favourite – a good Italian restaurant.
The power of these awesome mountains
It was unfortunate that the day scheduled for our trip up to the Jungfraujoch was wet! Nevertheless armed with sweaters (advisable even on a sunny day at the height of 3454m), sensible shoes and waterproofs we set off. Our train, climbing ever higher, took us through the beautiful Lauterbrunnen Valley, which was so inspirational to JRR Tolkein for his epic novel The Lord of the Rings.
Because of the bad weather we were unable to see the spectacular view from the Jungfraujoch – the saddle of the Jungfrau – which our superb guide Martin Gertsch had so badly wanted us to see. But in many respects the low cloud, the fierce wind and the driving sleet made us appreciate the sheer power of these awesome mountains even more. In any event there is lots to see and do up there.
We watched the 360˚ Jungfrau-Panorama; followed the development of tourism in the region from Adolf Guyer-Zeller’s dream of building a railway up and through the mountains to the present day in the Alpine Sensation Round-Tower Subway; we walked out on the Sphinx Terrace (an express lift takes visitors up to 3571m) to view the Sphinx Observatory and Research Station.
We didn’t linger long in the sleet blizzard but walked somewhat unsteadily on the ice of the Ice Palace, hewn out of the slowly moving ice, admiring the wonderful ice sculptures; before doing some shopping in the Top of Europe shop prior to an excellent lunch in the elegantly delicious Restaurant Crystal. Along with coffee came a chocolate in the shape of a mountain – it was we discovered made just a little way down the mountain side!
Chocolate Eiger mountain
On the way back to Interlarken we left the train at the Eigergletscher stop for the Restaurant Eigergletscher. It is noted for the magnificent views from its terrace, but sadly not that day. However the cakes compensated. When we were there the confectioner and indeed chocolatier Claude Rihs was much in evidence. It was he who told me the story of the beginnings of Swiss chocolate.
In the 1860s Swiss Daniel Peters married a chocolate maker’s daughter and changed careers from candle to chocolate making. He tried unsuccessfully adding milk to dark chocolate until he experimented with dried milk from Nestlé. It worked and the world was introduced to milk chocolate.
Claude and his colleagues continue the Swiss tradition of making superb chocolate and amongst their seriously delicious ranges is that Eiger shaped treat that had so delighted me – the Eigerspitzli.
An Alpine Garden…
However, magnificent as the Jungfrau and its companion mountains are it was the Schynige Platte which delighted us most.
The train journey from Interlaken via Wilderswil is exquisitely pretty with the track climbing through woodland and lush green meadows to its destination. Not for nothing is the down line known by the locals as the ‘ooh, ahh’ line – such are the sounds of contentment emanating from camera happy tourists.
It’s great walking territory and panic not if you have not brought the right footwear for mountain walking there is an outlet on the station which rents out sensible footwear. Whilst my friend headed for the terrace of the Schynige Platte hotel and a cold beer, Martyn took me round the alpine garden. I had expected a formal garden, but no, this is a delightful, natural, mountain garden where alpine plants flourish and bloom.
…and home smoked game and fish
A little later the three of us had lunch on the hotel terrace, and a very good lunch it was too. Thomas Willem has been a chef for 30 years and loves using and promoting local produce, some of which he sells in the restaurant. He showed me where he smokes his own game and fish.
Horrified at the cost of smoked salmon he decided to smoke his own and has now added deer and wild boar to his repertoire. When he returned to his kitchen it was his charming wife Jasmin who showed me round the hotel with its simple, but charmingly comfortable and prettily furnished themed rooms.
Rugenbräu brewery produces whisky as well as beer
The beer my friend had been drinking came from the Rugenbräu brewery based at Matten bei Interlarken. It is open to the public on certain days. We had to visit. Rgeunbräu is an independent Swiss brewing company noted for its prize-winning beers. It’s been in existence since 1866 and today produces not only beer but mineral water, wine, schnapps and whisky.
The beer most definitely is good. But so too is the whisky, in fact it is very, very good. The urbane René Schneider took us round the brewery explaining the brewing process using good Swiss hops and mountain water and telling the history of the brewery and how they came to produce whisky.
Eventually we were taken down to a cavernous cellar complete with bar where René told us more about the whisky – whilst we sampled. I am not a whisky drinker, it gives me a foul headache, so I only had the merest sip but even I could appreciate its smoothness and subtle flavour, the result of being aged in oloroso sherry barrels.
Its deliciousness is no doubt partly thanks to Jim McEwan, of the Islay distillery Bruichladdich acting as an advisor. One of the whisky’s the Swiss Highland Single Malt Whisky ICE LABEL spends part of life aging on the top of the Jungfrau.
We had an evening flight home from Zurich airport so instead of taking the faster train we opted for a lake steamer. It was a perfect way to end our all too short trip to the Top of Europe – a leisurely cruise calling in at lakeside halts whilst we enjoyed a very good fish lunch with as a backdrop a wall of magnificent mountains.