Our World Mountain magic in Grindelwald

The viewing platform at First, Grindelwald, Switzerland. Picture: Gemma Nisbet
Photo of Gemma Nisbet

High in the Swiss Alps, there's a picture-book scenic paradise of mountains, lakes, snow caps, forests ... and raclette. 

There’s a scene in Heidi, the Swiss children’s book, where the young protagonist, seeing the setting sun spreading its glow over the mountains, fears the peaks are aflame.

“A fire, a fire,” she calls to her friend Peter. 

“The mountains are on fire, and the snow and the sky too. Look, the trees and the rocks are all burning, even up there by the hawk’s nest. Everything’s on fire!”

Rereading this passage for the first time in maybe 20 years on my flight to Switzerland, I’d assumed author Johanna Spyri must have taken some poetic licence in describing this scene. But, here in the alpine village of Grindelwald, I’m being forced to reassess my cynicism. 

It’s about 8pm on a summer’s evening and I’m walking back from the village to my hotel. As I set off up the hill, I notice the surrounding mountains seeming to blush, their rocky faces warmed by the light of the setting sun. As I walk, the colours deepen until the rocks glow red — as if they’re on fire. 

This isn’t the area where Heidi was set — that was the village of Maienfeld in the east — but this is clearly the same phenomenon. And it’s spectacular, ever more so as each moment passes and the sun sinks lower on the horizon, intensifying the colours.

I make it back to the hotel, up to my room and on to my balcony to see the last of the red light lingering on the snow-capped peaks, shrinking to a sliver until it’s gone entirely. It’s one of the best sunsets I’ve ever seen, and I didn’t even see the sun directly.

I’ve been in Grindelwald only a couple of hours, having arrived at the station tired and a little frazzled after a five-and-a-half-hour train journey. But already I’m feeling restored by this beautiful place.

Long established as a tourist draw, Grindelwald looks every bit the quintessential alpine village, spread along a grassy valley and dwarfed on one side by the craggy Nordwand, the northern face of the towering Eiger mountain. Said to be the biggest north face in the Alps, the Nordwand has claimed the lives of dozens of climbers, earning it the nickname Mordwand (German for “murderous wall”). 

There are other peaks alongside it — Wetterhorn and Schreckhorn among them, their covering of forest petering out to rock. Above the village hangs the rumpled icy mass of the Unterer or Lower Grindelwald glacier, while further up the valley is its smaller counterpart, the Oberer glacier.

The contrast between the grandeur of the landscape and the neat, pitch-roofed houses, their window boxes stuffed with red geraniums, makes them both all the more striking. 

I get a different view of the village and its mountain backdrop the next morning as I ride the gondola lift from Grindelwald to the summit of First. This isn’t a high mountain by Swiss standards — although, at 2168m, it comes close to our Mt Kosciusko — but it provides panoramic views over the village, valley and the rugged mountains and glaciers. 

First is a ski field in winter, but in the warmer months it’s a popular place for hiking, as I learn after I disembark with Ana, my Jungfrau Tourism guide. Ana, who is one of the many Portuguese living and working in Switzerland, has been making noises about her lack of fitness, presumably to make me more comfortable about my own lack of form when it comes to hiking. But as she sets off at a decent clip on the trail to the alpine lake of Bachalpsee, I realise “unfit” may be a relative term in outdoorsy Switzerland.

We tramp up and down hills, the sun already warm on our backs, and pause regularly to take photographs and admire the views. In the distance, cows graze the summer meadows, their movements set to the soundtrack of the bells around their necks — small ones for the younger cows, big clanking ones for the adults. Again, I’m struck by the contrast between the drama of the geography and the cosily domestic air imparted by the signs of human habitation: the robustly healthy cows, the well-tended gravel paths, the little signs with information on the wildflowers along the route. 

We reach Bachalpsee after the best part of an hour. Up close, its waters are so clear I can see tiny fish near the bottom, but as I step back it glassily reflects the snow-topped mountains. Cows have gathered near the water and, in the natural amphitheatre created by the hills that rise behind it, the cacophony of their bells reminds me a little of the rhythmic chiming of Balinese gamelan music.

Ana tells me it’s possible to adopt a cow during the summertime in Switzerland, paying a fee to receive an adoption certificate and the right to visit “your” cow. Some of your adoptee’s milk and cheese might also be included, and some farmers require a few hours’ labour as part of the deal. And though people pay pretty handsomely for the privilege — I later find one website offering a month’s adoption for CHF180 ($241.50) — apparently it has proved popular among city dwellers keen to get their hands dirty and connect with Switzerland’s agricultural heritage. Indeed, Ana confesses, she has an adopted cow of her own.

Back near the gondola station, we test our slightly tired legs on the viewing platform jutting out over the valley, the final section entirely transparent so we can look down to the alarming sight of rocks and grass far below. Subsequent visitors can go one better with the new First Cliff Walk, a suspended walkway curving around a nearby cliff face, which opens following my visit. 

Thankfully, after this it’s time for lunch on the sunny terrace of the First Mountain Guest House (where you can also stay the night). Swiss cuisine tends to be heavy on meat, potatoes, creamy sauces and especially cheese. And it’s here this food really begins to make sense to me: after all that walking, I want something hearty and filling. A hefty serve of raclette — melted cheese with small potatoes, gherkins and pickled onions — is just the ticket.

Feeling restored, we set off for our next adventure: the First Flyer. This is a sort of a zipline where we’re strapped into seated harnesses, attached to a cable and sent whizzing off along the 800m line. Both Ana and I have been nervous at the prospect — apparently the Flyer can reach speeds of 84km/h — but in the end it’s less scary than expected, providing more of a refreshing breeze than a rush of terror. 

But the mountain isn’t done with us yet. We won’t be catching the gondola or even walking back to the village — instead, we’re riding trottibikes (a scooter-bike hybrid) down the steep, winding 4.5km road from the Bort gondola station to Grindelwald. The brochure has promised we’ll “skim down the mountain”, but I make relatively slow, wobbling progress until I get to grips with balancing, steering and braking. I eventually find it’s easier if you speed up a little, and we arrive back in the village sweaty, sunburnt and exhausted — but with big smiles on our faces.

That evening I have one of the best dinners of my trip at Cafe 3692, an unassuming but deservedly popular little place perched above the village. Tonight’s Saturday, one of the few nights the cafe is open for dinner, and owner Bruno is cooking sausages on a woodfired barbecue on the terrace. 

As I eat, I overhear the elderly English couple seated at the next table telling him he lives “in paradise”. And later, as I walk back to my hotel, the scent of freshly cut grass in the air as the sun begins to set the mountains aglow, I have to admit they might just be right. 

Gemma Nisbet was a guest of Switzerland Tourism.

Fact File

Join us on a summertime tour of Switzerland, travelling by boat, bus, train and more around the country. Duration: 02m 24s The West Australian

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