Stunning views and adrenalin pumping aerial walkways give Liz Gill an exhilarating experience in the Swiss Alps
There is a wonderful story told by Mark Twain against himself about his first trip to Rigi in 1878 when he and his friend asked to be woken at dawn so they could see the sunrise over the spectacular mountain range. The night before, however, they drank so much that they slept through the alarm and woke the next day to find the sun not rising but setting.
Nearly 20 years later, and presumably more sober and responsible, the author returned with his wife and children to spend the summer there. He declared it “This is the charmingest place we have ever lived in for repose and restfulness.”
Twain was visiting during the Swiss mountain’s tourism heyday, prompted by the opening of Europe’s first cogwheel railway in 1871. Prior to that the slopes had been the domain of sturdy farmers and dedicated pilgrims and those rich enough to pay to be carried up in a sedan-style chair, an image which still features on the bottle labels of the local beer.
The invention of the cogwheel system by Niklaus Riggenbach, a book-keeper turned civil engineer, now meant goods and people could be carried with ease up the 5,900 ft peak. One hotel after another sprang up culminating in the Grand at the summit at Kulm, patronised by the likes of Felix Mendelssohn, Victor Hugo and King Ludwig II of Bavaria who donated his Meissen tea service to the hotel. One August day at the beginning of the 20th century the guests included 72 Germans 47 French , 30 Americans, 21 Russians, 11 Swiss and five English.
The First World War and subsequent social changes put paid to that golden age (though Ludwig’s tea service is still on display at the much more modest modern Kulm hotel) but the mountains, of course, remain as beautiful and the cogwheel railway as brilliantly efficient as ever.
Even in only a couple of days we seem to be forever stepping on and off it: walking between stations on the network which criss-crosses Rigi or nipping down to the spa or back to the hotel for a rest or catching it home after supper. Needless to say it is always on time and if it is very busy they simply attach another carriage or run an extra train. For although guests might not now spend whole summers here with a retinue of servants, the area is increasingly popular with visitors from the Far East as well as Europe.
Known as the Queen of the Mountains with panoramic views of 125 named Alps from her head and with three lakes – Zug, Lauertz and Lucerne – at her feet, Rigi claims to draw more visitors than any other in Switzerland. So extensive though are the footpaths and hiking trails that one can walk for hours and pass only a handful of people. These fellow hikers, I learn from our guide Josef, should be greeted with the old Swiss German phrase ‘gruezi’.
At 68 Josef is old enough to remember a childhood where the family would move up to the high alpine pastures each summer to graze their cows and live without running water or electricity and where he learned to milk his first cow and get his lessons from his older sisters. “In those days you could take children out of school which led to the belief that farm children were stupid,” he says. “That’s not allowed anymore.”
The cows are still grazing there at this time of year in the flower-filled meadows – the area has an extraordinary range of 900 types of flowering plants, 300 lichens and 100 mosses – and their tinkling bells are a constant background to our stay.
Much of the flora is labelled and the trails themselves are all clearly signposted with times rather than distances which can be meaningless in ascents and descents. Along the way we stopped at a farm to watch cheese-making and later cooked sausages at one of the gruebis shelters which offer shade and seating and wood for the bbq. We had opted in the heat for the more gentle routes but were still glad afterwards to visit the Kaltbad Mineral Bath and Spa which, as well as all the usual features of such places, offers an outdoor pool where you’re massaged by the bubbles while gazing out at breath-taking views from 4750ft above sea level.
Kaltbad means cold bath and refers to the spring which legend says sprang out of a rock after the death of the last of three pious sisters who came up Rigi in the 14th century to escape violence in the valley and spent their lives helping and healing the local farmers. As the water was said to have curative powers, the fountain soon became a place of pilgrimage and there is still a lovely little chapel built by the stream.
Our hiking makes us feel justified in having the gastronomic tasting menu at our Edelweiss Hotel which is preceded by a visit to its herbal garden where owner Gregor and chef Ben explain some of the properties of the 400 different plants – there are 22 varieties of thyme alone – and how they are going to be used in our nine course meal.
A key feature of our trip is the Swiss Travel Pass which allows unlimited travel by train, bus and boat, on public transport in over 90 towns and cities, free or half price fares on most mountain railways and free admission to more than 500 museums.
We have used it to come by train from Zurich and are now going to use it to go from one mountain to another: from Rigi to Schilthorn via Vitznau, Lucerne and Interlaken . With the impeccable planning that Swiss public transport is famous for, we never seem to have to walk far or wait for long. For example, we get off the cogwheel railway at Vitznau and stroll a few yards to the lakeside where we can see the boat for Lucerne already drawing close.
Incidentally those of us who remember the Adventures of William Tell on television in our childhoods are interested to sail past Kussnacht where the real life freedom fighter finally shot Landburgher Gessler.
We stop off in Lucerne to visit the Transport Museum which covers trains, roads, boats, submarines, aviation and space as well as all the ingenious ways the country has developed over the years to get people up all those mountains one of which, the cable car, will later take us up Schilthorn to the village of Murren where we are staying. Curiously there is a statue here of Arnold Lunn, the Englishman who invented slalom and put Murren on the map.
This is the peak made famous in the James Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service starring George Lazenby, Diana Rigg and Telly Savalas as Blofeld whose Piz Gloria HQ and base for world domination is set at the summit.
The 1968 shoot, in fact, rescued the revolving restaurant there after the developers ran out of money. Not only did the producers complete the project they subsequently bequeathed it to the company along with a licence to use all the relevant images.
Such licences are probably worth millions: certainly the place exploits them to the full. Elements of the decor remain the same in the restaurant where you can eat a ‘Bond brunch’ with scenes from the film playing in the background and follow that with an outdoor ‘walk of fame’ to what was Blofeld’s helipad and read reminiscences from Bond girls, stuntmen, cameramen and other members of the crew. There is also a highly enjoyable interactive 007 Experience which includes a poignant interview with George Lazenby.
He only made the one film for which he received mixed reviews. He says, however, that he was offered a million dollars to do more. A mixture of bad advice and a hippy phase which put him out of sorts with the whole concept led him to decline. Now 78, he says rather wistfully “I should have done another.”
Visitors who want real rather than cinematic excitement can try out the Thrill Walk beneath the Birg cable car station which clings to the rock face hundreds of feet above the abyss. I was so scared I scuttled along as quickly as possible not daring to choose the netting tube or pole pathways, though I did venture across the glass floor section. It certainly convinced me I daren’t attempt the three hour Via Ferrata from Murren to Gimmelwald. Even the braver souls in our group who did do it admitted it was terrifying as well as exhilarating.
At 9750 feet Schilthorn feels chilly even on a bright summer day and the air a bit thin but its height is modest by comparison with the three giants looming across the valley, all soaring to over 13,000 ft : the Jungfrau, the Monch and the Eiger with its forbidding North Face. One wonders what adjective Mark Twain might have coined for them.
The Swiss Travel Pass is available for 3, 4, 8 or 15 days. Prices from £197 second class. It is exclusively for visitors so you may need to show your passport.
Switzerland Travel Centre
www.swisstravelsystem.co.uk 0800 100 200 30
Swiss International Air Lines operates up to 180 weekly flights to Switzerland from London Heathrow, London City, Manchester, Birmingham, Edinburgh (during summer) and Dublin from £55 one-way
www.swiss.com 0345 601 0956