Motorhome travel: Sensational Switzerland
Patriotism goes up in smoke – literally – as we take the Rothorn Bahn steam train from Brienz. I’ve often said that some of the most scenic train journeys in Europe are in my native Wales. Now, chugging up through meadows and woodlands, past craggy rock faces, over tumbling mountain streams and through tunnels, sometimes at a rather alarming angle, I eat my words. Never have I been on a journey where I have heard so many “wows” and “just look at that!” and in so many different tongues.
And this isn’t even the ‘big boy’ of rail thrills in this region. That claim goes to the Jungfraujoch up to Europe’s highest railway station, which is well beyond our budget. You’d think that we’d be a bit blasé about big and beautiful mountains by now as our high summer tour has already taken us through the magnificent scenery of the Austrian Tyrol and Slovenia and the super-duper-dramatic Dolomites, all immensely hard acts to follow. Do these Swiss sensations inspire the same awe? Absolutely – and then some.
Basking in the sunshine on the Rothorn’s panoramic terrace (2,350m/7,710ft) is like being surrounded by a cinema screen. These monumental mountains are real divas, each one vying for attention as the rays bounce off them: the Jungfrau 4,158m (13,641ft), Eiger 3,970m (13,025ft), Titlis 3,239m (10,627ft), the list goes on...
Looking down, where we’re staying at the lovely Camping Aaregg right on Lake Brienz, I can see towards Interlaken and Lake Thun and can just make out the Giessbach Falls as they splash into the inviting turquoise waters of Lake Brienz. Turning, there are the lakes around Lucerne; then, way off, the Juras with France beyond. You get the picture. Switzerland is all about spectacular highs. Approaching every tight bend in the mountain passes (and there are so many) is exciting, with the anticipated delivery of yet another knockout view.
We’d entered from Italy, snaking through the Bernina Pass, pulling on fleeces for the first time in five weeks. Twisting and turning through jaw-dropping mountain passes becomes the ‘norm’ and 35mph our top speed. A couple of times we are overtaken by super-fit cyclists. Around Silvaplana and the Julier Pass we’re level with the clouds. Visibility is poor; it feels like we’re on a roller coaster ride to nothingness. Our route on the helpful sat-nav screen appears as a red snake.
Around Savognin, the road traces high above a deep gorge before we go down and down again. I keep thinking “never have we known so many bends”, but that thought is a constant thread on our swerving Swiss route. Heading to Thusis from Tiefencastel the road curls through tunnels and we emerge in another steep-sided gorge with a ceiling of mist obscuring the mountains.
From Camping Flims we follow the path to Lake Cauma. An hour-long walk through woodland leads to the Il Spir viewing platform over the canyon-like Upper Rhine Gorge, with the railway so far below that it looks like a model train set. Crazy drivers and motorcyclists overtake us on bends up the Oberalp Pass. Mountain roads are good, but some spots are enough to make passengers nervous, especially in this pass where, in places, there are only bollards between us and the bottom of the valley.
At the top, 2,046m (6,713ft) above sea level, is the strangest sight. It’s the bright red Rheinquelle Lighthouse, the highest in the world (of course!). You can’t go in it, unless you pay CHF100 (£78) for a special key, but it compels us to explore some of the many scenic trails, including one towards the Rhine’s source an hour’s hike away. Towards Göschenen the journey is via tunnels. Men are constructing roads where, so you’d think, roads are not meant to go.
The Susten Pass is our favourite, rated one of Europe’s most beautiful roads. The gorgeous scenery exemplifies everything I imagined the Swiss Alps to be: waterfalls, neat chalets with logs stacked outside, lush meadows where cows jangling loud bells graze and all enveloped by enormous snow-capped mountains. Our route clings to the mountainsides, often with only a small safety fence. At the top of the pass, daughter Sophie remarks that it’s, “like driving on the top of the world”. Coming down again, the squiggly road passes cascades tumbling through heavily wooded mountainside.
Camping Aaregg bills itself as being in a paradise-like location. Owner, Marcel, in whose family the site has been for several generations, suggests that we hire an electric boat so we can savour the early evening light suffusing the waters and sparking off the mountains. We think that our Swiss experiences can’t get any better – but we’re grossly underestimating the Bernese Oberland!
The weather in these parts can change dramatically and be very localised. Marcel tells us that, just a few days before, there was snow as far down as the Rothorn Bahn’s halfway station. We’re surprised; it’s scorching weather when we take the train next day. Still raving about our Rothorn experience, we wander Brienz’s promenade dotted with sculptures, fun water play equipment and plentiful free deckchairs. Brienz is Switzerland’s wood carving centre and does it show! Exquisite models, from bears and reindeer to musicians are showcased in shop windows. Eighteenth century chalets in the much-photographed cobbled Brunngasse have intricately carved façades draped with geraniums.
We’ve avoided eating out in Switzerland so that we can splash out on the ‘must-sees’, but the restaurant at Camping Aaregg is reasonable, offers homemade varieties of the Swiss potato-based speciality, rösti, and has a terrace with a captivating view of the lake.
At Camping Lazy Rancho, close to Lake Thun at Interlaken, we wake up to views that have to be up there with the best of them. The towering trilogy of the Mönch, Eiger and Jungfrau greet us and, as the sun sets, offer a superb send-off to days of experiencing one thrill after another. The most heart-thumping of thrills (for me) are the cliff walks. It seems it’s not enough to have these amazing mountains, on which we have the most breathtaking (literally and figuratively) of walks via numerous cable cars and gondolas; they have to build nerve-wracking, metal grating catwalks high above abysses as well!
My first experience is on the First Cliff Walk by Tissot, which hugs the rocks on the west side of First (2,167m/7,110ft). It ends on a glass floor, where selfie-stick-toting tourists queue up to take silly snaps rather than look at the awesome Eiger opposite. My knees are jelly at the start, but nerves give way to a smug sense of achievement given that I am not good with heights.
So, the next day, when the attendant in one of the four stages of cable cars and gondolas up the Schilthorn (2,970m/9,744ft) tells me, “Oh, the thrill walk here at Birg (the penultimate stage at 2,677m/8,783ft) isn’t nearly so scary as the one at First,” he grins, rather too broadly. I feel pretty confident about standing on see-through floors over dizzying drops. As it turns out, this heebies-jeebies-inducing walk has ‘challenges’; a ‘tightrope’ with what appears to be just a wire mesh under your feet and, at the end, a mesh tunnel suspended in the void.
Well, I can only reach the tightrope before the wobbles get their grip. I climb sheepishly back up the metal grating stairs trying to focus on the incredible view around me instead of what isn’t beneath me. Daredevil teenager, Sophie, as usual, completes the entire challenge several times and comes up smiling, not shaking! The only time Sophie is a little bit shaken on a mountain is when a crowd of cheeky goats on Grindelwald-First are determined to snaffle our picnic and, when that fails, try very hard to snack on our clothes, cameras and rucksacks, all at once.
Our experience on the Schilthorn is so stirring that I’m surprised that it’s still trading on its location for the 007 James Bond movie from 1969. This is the highest summit of the Bernese Alpine Foreland, with a bewitching vista from Piz Gloria (2,970m/9,744ft) stretching across the Swiss skyline to the Jura and the Vosges mountains of France and to the Black Forest. We can even see Mt Blanc, the highest in Europe at 4810m (15,781ft). There’s a Bond World 007 exhibition and ‘walk of fame’ and a revolving restaurant, but the wraparound views are the real stars. We experience a terrific spine-tingle as we gently glide off a sheer drop on the final cable car from Mürren.
The Lauterbrunnen Valley is enchanting; it reminds me of Yosemite National Park in California with its towering granite mountains, emerald-coloured pastures and (as its name suggests) over 70 waterfalls. The Mürrenbach Falls (417m/1,368ft) are the highest in Switzerland, the water descending like a thin veil and spraying walkers who have climbed up a small hill beneath it. Coming here is going to be an unforgettable experience.
Another ‘high’ is Harder Kulm, Interlaken’s ‘house mountain’, from where we get a bird’s eye view of lakes Brienz and Thun under the ever-present eyes of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau. A steep funicular carries us from near Interlaken Ost station to lookouts and a restaurant. The Two Lakes Bridge, with the ubiquitous glass viewing section 1,321m (4334ft) above sea level, creates another wave of ‘wows’ among the throng of tourists.
In the bottom of the valley again, we follow forest trails around Ballenberg Open Air Museum where buildings from all over Switzerland have been relocated stone by stone. It reminds me of St Fagan’s in South Wales except here, in place of workmen’s institutes and prefabs, there’s a grand industrialist’s villa and a silkworm-breeding farmstead and shops selling chocolate, handmade ointments and rösti platters.
Lake Thun beckons; paths from very close to Lazy Rancho draw us through woods and then alongside a river past a series of cascades. From one of the tree-shaded benches we watch one of several tourist boats disappear up Lake Thun. A parasailer appears as the wind picks up and the lake become so choppy that we almost get a boot-full as water splashes close to where we sit. Our return is enhanced by the enviable sight of paragliders drifting from the mountains. Switzerland has been a leap for us, too – in terms of budget, that is – but I would have given almost everything to have had these experiences.
Where to stay in Switzerland...
Camping Berner Oberland says: "Wherever you decide to park your motorhome or campervan in the Bernese Oberland, make sure to plan enough time to feel the magic. This is where nature shows off all her beauty, from the gentle green hills in the west, along the emerald waters of Lakes Thun and Brienz or on the steep north faces further east.
"Hike against the backdrop of the Bernese Alps, enjoy a bike ride along murmuring mountain streams, feel the rush of adrenaline on an afternoon of rafting, or simply gaze at misty waterfalls as they tumble down steep walls of solid rock. The views will leave you breathless and are sure to make lasting memories to enjoy on those cold and dark winter evening back home."