Neil Hennessy-Vass goes looking for Blofeld
Switzerland has always offered the adventurous a playground of excitement and adrenaline. The filming 50 years ago of the James Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service typified this as the cast and crew headed for the small village of Mürren in the Jungfrau region known for its incredible mountains and the astonishing real life lair or Piz Gloria.
The Shilthorn was the location chosen by Bond producers to create one of the most exciting action thrillers of the 60s. It’s a quiet sleepy place that has a population of 400 and until as recently as the early 1960s received its mail by donkey. In October 1968 the crew and a cast of beauties including the ravishing national treasure Joanna Lumley took over the village for three months. The film was released in 1969.
It was to the first and last outing for Australian actor and model George Lazenby, his co-stars Diana Rigg and Telly Savalas were far more famous than this Australian new boy. He was offered another film but felt that the phase of Bond was on the wane so declined. I’m certain that if he’d known that it was to become the most famous film franchise in the world still running 50 years later he might have taken that second film. In many ways it’s a shame he didn’t as he puts in a good performance and it’s one of the stronger earlier films in the series.
I billeted myself at the excellent Hotel Alpenruh, which is literally a stones throw from the cable car. A classic chalet style building dating back to 1920s it was comfortable with great service and a super restaurant and the view from my room (which had a wrap around balcony) was fantastic. Although it was -13° there was little wind on my visit so it didn’t feel too cold.
The cable car took me to Birg, the first leg of the journey up to Pix Gloria. At 2677m above sea level a Londoner like me was starting to feel short of breath. There are brilliant views from here looking down over the valley of Lauterbrunnen. There is a gravity defying sky walk that takes you around the mountain on a narrow metal path with some sections made of glass so you can see right through and others of metal netting, worth doing if only to bring out your inner Bond.
As I ascended to Piz Gloria there is a 5 second music sting of John Barry’s superb sound track from the film to get one in the mood. The top is comprised of two main floors. The first has an interactive museum, Bond World that contains props and screenings of segments of the film. You can sit in the bob sleigh and have your self, filmed chasing Blofeld or fly one of the helicopters used in the assault on the peak. This is Bond heaven, there is so much detail available as well a small cinema showing behind the scenes footage and outtakes and lots of interactive screens to touch producing a plethora of facts and related images.
The next level is quite literally breathtaking at 2970m. I walked up the original staircase used by Bond disguised as Sir Hilary Bray from the London College of Arms with its wrought iron work into what must be one of the most impressive restaurants in the world (or at least on top of it). With panoramic views offering sight of Mont Blanc on a good day this is the real deal when it comes to luxury and Bond villain lairdom. As if that wasn’t enough it revolves once every 45 minutes. You have to pay attention to your table number, the vista is mesmorising as you look out the window but the one behind you is slowly changing all the time so it’s easy to get ‘muddled’.
On offer in the 360° restaurant is a particularly gratifying bottomless brunch that includes fizz. Get the hotel to book you a table one morning, install yourself, enjoy the views, plentiful food, imbibe as much of the bubbly as you wish and forget about skiing for that day. On another note the toilets are award winning (yes really) pop in and you’ll see why, they have an interactive element.
So the peak is fantastic and a must for a Bond pilgrimage but there is more to discover, as I was to found out. I thought I knew a lot about Bond especially On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which I rate in the top three of the oeuvre, but then I met two people who clearly know a lot more.
Annelis Stâhli-Von Allmen worked for her parents as the manager of Eiger Hotel in Mürren in the late 60s. The cast stayed at The Palace Hotel but the crew, were at The Eiger during the filming and more importantly is was the go to place for drinks after a days shooting. There are plenty of photographs of the time around the Eiger Hotel and she has and one or two anecdotes that are unrepeatable but some that are. One is a charming story of when Annelis’ baby daughter, Sandra who couldn’t sleep one night (probably because of the raucous party going in the bar). Sandra was duly brought down and made a fuss of; Diana Rigg took a particular interest in her and offered her Champagne. Sandra it is said liked it and went back to sleep. So what of Sandra now? She is a wine expert and buyer for the hotel. Clearly a Bond girl through and through.
The hotel now run by Annelis’ son even has a 007 suite with a few added extras such as table lamps fashioned from pistols and a collection of Bond DVDs to watch. George Lazenby stayed there at a recent reunion so it still has that continuing Bond connection.
My other stroke of luck was to be shown around the surrounding environs by Michael Hackl. Swiss based he is a walking encyclopedia of all things Bond and Fleming. He runs 007Collector a website dedicated to the world famous secret agent. “It started out as a hobby and just grew and grew,” says Michael who now spends all his time buying and selling memorabilia across the globe. He runs location tours and is as enthusiastic as he is knowledgeable. If Bond is your thing I can’t recommend Michael highly enough, he literally knows everything there is to know about the subject.
Scenes that were not based on the Shilthorn, London or Portugal were mostly shot in and around Lauterbrunnen, which sits below Mürren at the bottom of the valley. It’s here we see Bond alight the train dressed as Sir Hilary for the first time when he is collected by Frau Bunt and taken by sledge to a helicopter and flown to Piz Gloria. Also Tracy and Bond’s escape though the stock car race. Michael helpfully had screen shots of the locations printed to hand so we could pinpoint exactly where they were. This whole experience takes movie tourism to a new level.
This entire region is quite magical in winter covered in a blanket of snow (due to altitude it always snows here) or in summer when walking, mountain biking and parasailing are all popular. Skiing is obviously the prime winter concern and if you’re good enough you can even ski down from Piz Gloria a la Bond style. It’s only a short flight from London and the Swiss train system is second to none, reliable and efficient and takes you through the most beautiful countryside. Switzerland really is a movie wonderland.
On this trip I used a SBB Swiss Rail Pass that allowed me access on trains and cable cars. I flew with Swissair who fly daily to Switzerland from the UK.