Kindly contributed by Diccon Bewes, astute observer of Swiss culture and author of Swiss Watching and the recently released Slow Train to Switzerland. With a 1863 Alpine Club member's journal in hand, Bewes follows the route of early tourists in Switzerland, observing firsthand the changes tourism and time have wrought on the pristine country.
Four years before I had even thought about living in Switzerland, I fell in love with Kleine Scheidegg. It’s not off the beaten track and is on almost every tourist itinerary, but I love it anyway.
At 2061 metres above sea level, Kleine Scheidegg is not particularly high in Alpine terms, but it has an unbeatable location: it sits at the foot of the Eiger. There’s nothing I like more than eating a plate of Älplermakkaroni (a Swiss dish of pasta and potatoes in a creamy cheesy sauce served with apple purée) while admiring the infamous North Face. That vast expanse of near-vertical black rock was finally conquered in 1938 after countless men had tried – and died – to defeat this beast of Mother Nature. No surprise that the German name for it, Nordwand, is often changed to Mordwand, or Murder Wall.
You can get up here by train. Of course you can: this is Switzerland, the country where railways were once built upon anything that stood still long enough. It is the birthplace of mass tourism, thanks to Thomas Cook and his peaceful invasion of the Victorian middle classes. They wanted to enjoy the stunning landscape without having to hike up there so the Swiss built a wonderful network of mountain trains. They still carry lazy tourists up for a day on the rails and take Swiss hikers down after a day on the trails. For most visitors, Kleine Scheidegg is simply a place to change trains on the way up to Jungfraujoch, Europe’s highest train station. That makes it easy to leave the crowds behind as few go beyond the station. Five minutes’ walk uphill and there’s nearly no-one else around.
But as much as I love the train ride up, and I do, there’s a better way to reach Kleine Scheidegg. On foot from nearby Männlichen. This isn’t a mountain hike that will leave you a panting wreck by the end, more a hearty stroll for a couple of hours with great views at every turn. Spread out far beneath your feet is the bowl-shaped Grindelwald valley, sitting in the shadow of mighty peaks that loom over it, making everything else seem tiny. Its undulating green ridges are dotted with a few farms and traditional chalets between the holiday homes and hotels, and the only sound is the tinkling of cow bells. It couldn’t be more Swiss if it tried.
Now that I do live in Switzerland, I come back to Kleine Scheidegg every year; in winter to escape the fog the settles in the valleys, in summer to escape the heat by hiking along the panoramic paths. This year I even stayed overnight in the historic Bellevue hotel that has been welcoming guests for over a century. That’s when I fell in love with the place all over again. The silence arrived as soon as the last train left. And I could enjoy the majestic mountains almost alone. Diccon Bewes is the author of Swiss Watching and Slow Train to Switzerland. For more, visit his website or his Facebook page.