Imposing mountains, spectacular snow walking and charming hotels make this Swiss getaway an unforgettable winter break
WORDS & PHOTOGRAPHY* Barry Borman
If the crunch of crisp snow underfoot combined with sun-drenched scenery sets your pulse racing, then this is the trip for you. It’s a tale of three hotels: two Victorian icons and one from 1907, coupled with winter snow-walking in Switzerland on the Winterwanderwege.
As with the pistes, these paths are meticulously prepared nightly; the difference is that they offer a ski-less alternative to enjoy your snow-fix, with the built-in advantages of no crowds and a longer season. So all you need do is pull on your snow boots (tennis racket shoes not required) and you’re almost there.
My wife and I catch the early morning flight to Geneva, connecting with the three-and-a-half hour rail transfer and arriving at Grindelwald by 2.30pm. Determined to make the most of the afternoon, we immediately head out on the rack-and-pinion Jungfrau Railway, chugging up to the Hotel Bellevue des Alpes at Kleine Scheidegg (2,070m/6,791ft). This brown-slatted, green-shuttered hideout was in its heyday when Victorian Englishmen were claiming the Alps for tourism – all crystal chandeliers, Chippendale furniture and whispered voices, a perfect re-creation of that bygone era.
It’s too windy for us to venture outdoors, so we hunker down in the oak-panelled lounge, the sun streaming through the huge panoramic windows, overlooking the mountain prospect and cosily protected from the blustery spindrift as we nurse our hot chocolates.
Kleine Scheidegg itself is the base for climbing the historic Eiger North Face, first conquered by an Austrian-German expedition in 1938. Climbers attempting this hazardous undertaking could then, and can still now, be viewed in comfort from telescopes sited at Kleine Scheidegg – an eerie juxtaposition between the urbane tumult of the railway station and the challenges of the crags. The unfolding drama can also be observed from Eigerwand, one of the Jungfraubahn’s two stations carved into the interstices of the mountain.
The Jungfraubahn, accessed from either Grindelwald or Wengen, commences its meandering ascent from Kleine Scheidegg, tunnelling up from Eigergletscher station to the Jungfraujoch at 3,454m (11,332ft), the highest rail point attainable in Europe. The vision of Adolf Guyer-Zeller, who obtained the concession in 1893, ultimately came to fruition in 1912, topped out with an observatory and hotel. The former remains, while the latter has now been rebranded as Top of Europe, with restaurants offering panoramic Matterhorn and Mont Blanc views, and a stunningly sculptured Ice Palace. For walkers, hiking trails are laid out on the crevassed glacier – you’ll need to be warmly attired, though, with winter temperatures hovering around the -12°C mark.
There’s always anticipatory excitement in heading for the heights on that first morning and we take the cablecar up to Männlichen at 2,230m (7,316ft). Crunching our way through the frosted snow of our first Winterwanderwege, we see no footprints and appear to be the only ones delighting in this seclusion, making Männlichen peak (2,343m/7,687ft) in half an hour. Extending into the distance, valley after receding valley is engulfed in a fine weather sea of cloud. Looking back towards the cablecar, we’re greeted by the world-famous triumvirate of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau, the sun dazzling and the Föhn cloud nestling on the Jungfrau’s shoulder like a bridal veil.
Retracing our steps, we take the Männlichen cablecar down to Wengen, boarding the train back to Kleine Scheidegg. It’s still early afternoon, so we embark on the day’s second walk, a gloriously sunlit, flat stroll from the Bellevue. To our left, the path is bounded by hanging glaciers sparkling in a wall of confectioner’s icing, the railway snaking away on our right.
The destination is our second Victorian icon, the similarly brownwood-clad Jungfrau Hotel at Wengernalp. Built in 1865, the hotel has a dedicated railway station on the Wengernalp, both hotel and station being beautifully captured in sepia-tinted period photographs, replete with elegant ladies attired in white crinolines and resplendent hats. Inside, an inviting fireplace and distressed wood create a medieval ambiance, nicely contrasting with the restaurant’s contemporary haute cuisine. Stretching out on the sun-trap terrace, we sample the local speciality of Apfelstrudel mit Vanillesauce, luxuriating in the long, late rays of the afternoon sun. After our two invigorating walks, it really doesn’t get much better than this.
The sound of silence
Next morning, we board the gondola for First, gateway to the frozen Bachalpsee lake. Rambling along the 2,200m (7,217ft) contour, the swish of ski and whirr of cablecar are replaced with silence – not the bedtime variety you get at home, but rather a cold-around-the ears, frosty silence you can actually hear. This is the highlight of our trip and represents the true essence of snow walking: softly cocooned within a virgin white expanse, we’re sampling the mountain spa effect of gentle exercise for the body coupled with a soothing balm for the soul – the entire experience embroidered with sublime mountain vistas as we’re inveigled towards the immense inner sanctum of the peaks. We reach Bachalpsee in about an hour and a half. In winter, the lake is buried in snow and there’s just a bench and the view, but that’s enough for us, face to face with the full gamut of Grindelwald’s crystalline mountains etched against an azure sky.
The following day comprises a gentle downhill meander from First to Schreckfeld, the reward being an afternoon on the Schreckfeld mountain restaurant sun terrace. Ensconced in the front row of comfy chairs beside the sheer valley drop and facing the serrated pinnacles of Schreckhorn and Finsteraarhorn, we doze in the warm sun, dreaming of the magical charm of our stupendous surroundings.
The final morning, with a sense of symmetry, we return to the scene of our first afternoon, the Bellevue des Alpes. Whereas last time its outdoor terrace was windily unoccupied, today all is being set up for alfresco sunshine. Deckchairs with furry blankets are being neatly positioned and the ice bar is stocked with chilled wines and champagne. From here, I take the circular one-hour Fallboden hike towards the treacherous Eiger North Face. A hundred yards on and the hotel’s hubbub is negated by the isolation of the peaks. Camera again busy, I’m adjusting angles and composing foregrounds for more shots of Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau. It’s a wonderful way to conclude an exquisite four days of winter walking.
The third hotel is our Grindelwald residence, the Belvedere. So if you’re back from your exertions on the hill, the sun’s still shining and you fancy a spot of Swiss patisserie with your steaming, freshly brewed coffee, then the Belvedere’s rattan-couched sun terrace is the place to be, enchantingly backdropped by a stunning amphitheatre of peaks.
Inside, breakfast in the sumptuously appointed dining room, watching the Männlichen cableway silently ascend the heights, sets you up for the walking day ahead. Come evening, it’s a cosily magical experience indulging gourmet French cuisine while observing the stars, twinkling mountain chalets and powerful searchlights of the mechanical gridders preparing tomorrow’s snow walk.
The jewel in the hotel’s crown, and just what the doctor ordered for the pleasurable rejuvenation of walkers’ weary limbs, is its outdoor tub. Fully immersed in hot water before you emerge into sub-zero temperatures, it’s most atmospheric if you take your dip in the evening when it’s dark and the tub is dramatically illuminated by flaming Roman torches – even more so if accompanied by gently cascading snow crystals that lodge and then melt as they caress your eyelids. This amazing experience should be on everyone’s bucket list.
Our balcony overlooks the busy terminus of Grindelwald railway station (and I could sit endlessly, glass of chilled sauvignon blanc in hand, watching the trains head up the hill towards Kleine Scheidegg), backclothed by a breathtaking view of the Wetterhorn, Grindelwald’s ‘glacier mountain’.
As evening approaches, the silver-grey of night glides up the crags, surreptitiously encroaching the burnished amber glow of the summit pyramid. It’s an ethereal vision imprinted on my memory, which, together with thoughts of crisp powdered snow underfoot on the glorious Winterwanderwege, provides a perfect antidote to the ‘fast forward’ of the daily grind.
TIMES/DISTANCES Barry’s walks included: the Männlichen to Männlichen peak route, which was about 2km/1¼ miles and took about an hour (round trip); Kleine Scheidegg to Wengernalp (3km/1¾ miles in 45 minutes); First to Bachalpsee round trip (6km/3¾ miles in 2 hours 30 minutes); First to Schreckfeld (3km/1¾ miles in 45 minutes); and a round trip from Kleine Scheidegg to Fallboden (1.5km/1 mile in about an hour).
TRAVEL As well as Grindelwald, the Swiss resorts of Zermatt, Davos, Gstaad and St Moritz also offer excellent snow walking. Barry flew with EasyJet (www.easyjet.com), which flies to Zurich and Geneva from London, and to Geneva from Manchester and Edinburgh, one-way from £21.49. He stayed at the Hotel Belvedere, Grindelwald (www.belvedere-grindelwald.ch), which offers double rooms with breakfast from around £97pppn. For details of rail transfers from airports to Grindelwald, visit www.sbb.ch.
FURTHER INFO www.stc.co.uk; www.myswitzerland.com; www.grindelwald.ch