Switzerland... A case of whipping up stiff peaks
From Sherlock Holmes to the home of the meringue, Gemma Fullam enjoys a Swiss adventure
I'd wager he came for the cheese. Or maybe the meringues.
It's a bet I'll never win, as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is long dead and his proclivity for Swiss comfort food is unknown. That said, it is a matter of record that the prolific crime writer was so taken with the thunderous Reichenbach Falls that he chose them as a suitably majestic setting for the death of his lucrative fictional creation, Sherlock Holmes.
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Peering into "that cauldron of swirling water and seething foam" - which I'd reached via funicular, just outside Meiringen, a postcard-pretty town between Lucerne and Interlaken - I visualised the drama of the violent struggle between Holmes and his arch-nemesis, Moriarty, which resulted in both plunging to their deaths.
The town and its falls are a magnet for Holmes devotees who come to dress up and re-enact The Final Problem's scenes - although such was the outcry after Holmes's demise that Conan Doyle was eventually forced to resurrect the pipe-smoking detective with the "hawk-like nose".
Meiringen has another claim to fame, as home of the meringue, the invention of which culinary historians attribute to Gasparini, a pastry chef who called his chewy confection after the place of their invention (over time, the name morphed into the easier-to-pronounce meringue). The whipped-egg-white sugary shells abound in Meiringen, but the place to go is the Frutal Tearoom on Bahnhofstrasse - there's a giant plastic cherry-topped meringue outside, so you can't miss it.
I wasn't in Switzerland solely for the sugar hit, however, nor was I there to play-act as Sherlock - I'd come to hike part of the Via Alpina, a network of long-distance alpine hiking trails traversing several countries. The transalpine trail, which launched in 2002, aims to provide sustainable tourism in the mountain communities it intersects.
I'd arrived in Switzerland on August 1, Swiss National Day, a holiday of celebration of all things Swiss, and took the train from Zurich, via Lucerne to the Hasliberg area in the glorious Bernese Oberland. Swiss train journeys are a delight, not a drag, and the leg from Lucerne proved particularly fine, with the train's panoramic windows showcasing an almost floor-to ceiling view of the vivid Helvetic landscape over the Brunig pass, and waitress service providing a delicious, if pricey, espresso in my first-class carriage.
I disembarked in Brunig to catch a bus that skilfully negotiated the countless hairpin bends - Swiss PostBuses play a rather ear-splitting refrain from the William Tell Overture approaching blind corners - and deposited me near my lodgings for the night, the century-old hotel Gletscherblick. Its facilities, while basic - bunks, shared showers - are spotless, and the spectacular views of the Wetterhorn and Rosenlaui glacier more than compensate for any lack of luxury.
I rendezvoused with my travel companions, and after a convivial get-to-know-you drink, we set off on the short journey to Lake Hasliberg, a hive of activity for the national day of celebration, with candy-striped tents serving food and drink, and lots of flag-twirling and alphorn playing going on. I downed an ice-cold Chasselas and a plate of raclette in record time, my appetite whetted by the crisp mountain air.
As dusk fell, we watched, enchanted, as the local children carried lanterns in silent procession around the lake, while a spectacular volley of fireworks illuminated the darkening sky with red and white starbursts. Then the heavens opened, and one by one, the kids' lights were quenched by the deluge, but there wasn't a word of complaint from anyone, so invigorated were we by the warm summer rain and explosive show overhead.
The next day brought more rain, and poor visibility, so a quick rejig of our schedule saw us postpone our hike and head in the direction of Meiringen and one of the Haslital valley's most dramatic sights, the Aare Gorge. The Aare river, Switzerland's longest, has carved a spectacular gorge through the 200-metre-high limestone rock. We spent the guts of an hour meandering through, via the 125-year-old boardwalk (which is largely wheelchair-accessible), marvelling at the fast-flowing turquoise snowmelt, which originates in the Aare glaciers of the Bernese Alps and joins with the Rhine in Koblenz.
We hiked from the gorge to our destination for the night, Hotel Engstlenalp, a dead ringer for a miniature Grand Budapest Hotel.
On the way, we stopped into a traditional alpine dairy, Alp Gental, to see how the local cheese - mutschli, which means 'little cheese' - is made. This particular dairy uses the milk from 120 cows owned by local farmers, and the resulting cheese is shared among them, much like a co-op. It's quite a labour-intensive process, as the cheeses have to be hand-pressed with a special stone, washed daily with briny water and turned by hand.
The result is a nutty, delicious cheese, which we all agreed was among the best we had tasted. The dairy itself, like most things in rural Switzerland, is rustically beautiful. Built in the traditional chalet style, it has boxes of scarlet geraniums decorating its windows, and, hanging over the entrance, a row of massive ceremonial cowbells worn by the bovines during the desalpe, a centuries-old traditional festival celebrating the return of the cows from their summer alpine pastures.
Energised by the cheese, we hiked on through the verdant mountain valley to Schwarzental, from where, as evening was fast closing in, we caught the PostBus to Engstlenalp.
The picturesque pink hotel, in situ and run by the same family since 1892, is a stage stop on the Via Alpina, and located amid some of the most awe-inspiring scenery one is ever likely to see. To the right, in the shadow of the Graustock and Jochstock, is trout-filled Lake Engstlen, icy-cold and encircled by wildflowers.
As we hiked up the gradient to take a peep, the fields below were a hive of hustle and bustle, as the hotel was, for the weekend, host to a national schwingen tournament - known locally as hosenlupf, which translates as 'breeches-lifting'. We watched, agog, as massive men grappled one-on-one in the quartet of 12-metre sandy rings, each one trying to use his opponent's jute pants to flip him onto his back and win (ultimately, a cow).
The spectacle had drawn a massive crowd to the remote area, and the wood-panelled dining room was packed with hungry schwingers and spectators alike when we sat down to a feed of bratwurst (sausage) with zwiebelsauce (onion gravy) and rosti (a fried grated-potato cake). All washed down with some fine local beer, naturally.
The morning dawned gorgeously bright - perfect hiking weather - and after a three-minute shower (there's one per floor, coin-operated and timed; I discovered, to my surprise, that three minutes is ample time for ablutions) and a hearty breakfast, we headed off, guided by Jungfrau Tourism's Michelle Klee, a keen trail runner, to hike nine miles of the Red ridge trail to Tannalp, Balmeregghorn and Planplatten, from where we planned to take the gondola back to Meiringen.
While doable with a moderate level of fitness, the Via Alpina is not for amateurs, and I (an amateur) struggled with the high altitude, the relentless gradients and the pace of my companions, who were more experienced hikers. That said, I managed it, despite being Paddy last for the duration, and the sheer splendour of the scenery - the ridge crest at Balmeregghorn is died-and-gone-to-heaven territory - more than made up for any discomfort.
The trail was unusually busy as, rather than driving, the hiking-mad Swiss were making their way, some on bikes, to the wrestling via the mountain trail. Believe me, a five-hour hike is a Sunday stroll to a Swiss - they are an incredibly fit nation. We stopped mid-way to rest on the mountainside meadows among the alpenroses and glockenblumen, and savoured our picnic of bread, cheese and dried meat, as the languorous Alpine cows looked on with disinterest.
Literary inspiration runs deep in Switzerland: along with Conan Doyle's Sherlock denouement, Tolkien was inspired to base the spectacular landscapes of Middle Earth on the vistas of the Bernese Oberland he'd encountered as a 19-year-old hiker. In the 1950s, he wrote to his son: "From Rivendell to the other side of the Misty Mountains… is based on my adventures in Switzerland in 1911."
We reached Planplatten with ample time to catch the last gondola, and enjoy a well-deserved coffee while admiring the panorama of 400 peaks, and Lake Brienz, visible from the Alpentower terrace.
Back in Meiringen, at Hotel Rebstock, we reconvened to watch the world go by in the evening sunshine and eat fondue. Traditional Swiss fare is hugely calorific, but a five-hour hike means guilt-free dining, and we hardly waited for the creamy cheese to bubble before devouring it with our speared bread cubes, even scraping the crispy bits - the best part, according to one of our party - from the bottom of the pot.
You'd think all that cheese and bread would give one indigestion, but the crafty Swiss recommend pairing fondue with white wine (we did), kirsch or black tea; any other beverage is said to coagulate the cheese in your stomach resulting in considerable discomfort. Cheese and wine? It's an easy decision to make. Elementary, even...
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Unsurprisingly, for such a mysterious place, the gorge has a monster legend. The creature, spotted in 1814, resembles a cat-faced lizard that shrieks and is venomous. Locals call it the Stollwurm or Tatzelwurm (tunnel worm), and a cartoon version is the gorge's mascot today.
Whether it's a creamy fondue (pictured above), raclette, the world-famous holey 'Swiss cheese' - aka Emmental - or any of the hundreds of farmhouse cheeses produced in the lush countryside, Switzerland is a cheese-lover's dream. Yum.
* For more information on Switzerland, and on hiking the Via Alpina, see MySwitzerland.com or email email@example.com; for packages, trains and air tickets sales, see stc.co.uk
* SWISS operates weekly flights to Switzerland from Dublin. All-inclusive fares start from £84 one-way, including all airport taxes, one piece hold luggage and hand luggage, plus meal and drink. For reservations, see swiss.com
* The Swiss Travel System provides a dedicated range of travel passes and tickets exclusively for visitors from abroad. The Swiss Travel Pass is the all-in-one ticket to travel by train, bus and boat on an all-inclusive basis from 3-15 days. Prices from €221 in second class. Each ticket offers free admission to over 500 museums. For the ultimate Swiss rail specialist, see Switzerland Travel Centre, swisstravelsystem.co.uk
This feature originally appeared in The Sunday Independent
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