The Oeschinensee is almost impossibly blue (Paul Bloomfield)
Article Words : Sarah Baxter | 01 May

Hiking back in time in Switzerland

In 1863, an intrepid lady joined Thomas Cook’s first escorted tour of Switzerland – an epic trip of high peaks and high adventure; Sarah Baxter retraced her footsteps...

Sun blazing, mountains rearing, meadows a-rolling, cows a-clanking: Switzerland looked exquisite. I, however, was a mess. As the path sloped only upwards – somehow negotiating an insurmountable-looking cliff – sweat mustered at my brow, marched down my cheeks and dewdropped off my nose; my glands outmatched my T-shirt’s power to wick. And all I could think was: I’m so glad I’m not wearing a corset...

‘Oh! would, gentle reader... that your retina could be enamelled with that matchless landscape’

In June 1863, Thomas Cook conducted his first tour to Switzerland. In that party was a lady called Miss Jemima Morrell, who kept a journal of the three-week escapade. For years, her diary lay forgotten; in 1947 it was discovered in an old trunk, and then published in 1963 – the earliest recorded account of a package holiday.

Benidorm fly-n-flop it was not. Miss Jemima recounts 4am starts, 40km hikes, rickety carriage rides and bothersome muleteers. But she also displays a sense of wonder and adventure – despite having to cope with it all in crinolines.

Now, 150 years later, I had come to central Switzerland to retrace some of her pioneering footsteps. Like Miss Jemima, I would make my way north-east – by foot, train and boat – from Leukerbad, in the northern Valais, to Lucerne, via the famed peaks of the Bernese Oberland. I was keen to rediscover this most classic of travel destinations, to see what had changed and what had not. And, in some instances, to ignore any change anyway: sweating so messily up to the Gemmi Pass that first morning, I tried not to dwell on the fact that, unlike Miss Jemima, I could have taken a cable-car instead.

‘The awful power of those rocks... made one tremble’

To begin with a cable-car would have felt like cheating history. This vertiginous, zigzagging climb of 935 vertical metres was old when Miss Jemima tackled it. An ancient trade route, the route up to the Gemmi was revered as ‘the most extraordinary of all Alpine roads’, somehow weaving up a rockface that looks utterly unconquerable.

As I gained the top, 2,350m up, my perspiration quickly chilled – as did my soul. There was something a touch creepy about the Gemmi Pass. As I crossed this high-altitude plateau between the Valais and the Bernese Oberland, barren scree slopes slid into a lake of grey. All was as Miss Jemima had described: a ‘universal shade of drab’ – though dramatic, nonetheless.

After three hours more gentle hiking I came to the lonely Schwarenbach Inn, built on the Gemmi in 1742, and once renowned as a den of thieves and murderers; both Guy de Maupassant and Arthur Conan Doyle namechecked it in their thrillers. Today it was bustling with hikers, eating kuchen in the afternoon sun.

Being now gondola-accessible at both ends, the traverse of the Gemmi Pass can be busy. But by walking down from Sunnbüel Station into the Kander Valley instead of being cable-conveyed, I soon lost everyone else. It was quite a path, too, dropping off alarmingly to the formidable Gastern Valley. Pine, larch and a few cheerful violets lined the way; the only sound was distant cow-bells.

From the bottom of the trail it was a short walk along the churning river to Kandersteg. Here, Miss Jemima stayed at the Hôtel de l’Ours, noting that the inn burnt down the year after her visit. However, local historians believe it was actually destroyed the year before, in 1862, so the group must have stayed instead at The Ritter, which was owned by the same family – and which was to be my home for the night.

Now called the Belle Epoque Hotel Victoria, the place now proclaims its Art Nouveau flourishes. The oldest section (dating from 1789) has been turned into the à la carte dining room, a wood-panelled den where sophisticated food belies the rustic feel. I’m fairly sure Miss Jemima did not eat so well.

‘Days spent on foot afford the greatest satisfaction’

With Switzerland’s trains now bypassing the need to travel by slow carrosse de diligence, I had more time than my Victorian forbears to dally in Kandersteg. This proved well worth it for the day-hike around the Oeschinensee, a high-altitude lake of striking blue, reached on foot or by cable-car from the village. Up here, a flour-sift of snow scattered the granite peaks, and industrious tits quivered the pines. I hiked to a mountain hut selling beers and marmot-balm – allegedly good for relieving aching muscles.

The next day brought bad weather, a quick train hop and a sail across moody Lake Thun to Interlaken. However, the sullen sky did wonders for my ultimate destination, the Lauterbrunnen Valley, feeding all 72 of its waterfalls, and demonstrating exactly why Tolkien was so inspired here – this is elven Rivendell made real.

That afternoon I was headed to Wengen – teetering 1,274m up on the valley’s east side – via a train that’s laboured towards the car-free village since 1893. Christian and Anna Lauener-Gertsch opened the first hotel in Wengen in 1855, at which time guests had to hike up, or be carried by sedan chair. My hotel, the cosy Alpenrose, is owned by the Lauener-Gertsch’s great-great-grandchildren. The next morning I stepped out onto the balcony from my wood-and-red-check-bedecked bedroom to find the cloud cleared and a barricade of peaks now visible above the geraniums.

It was cold, though. Frost glistered the grass and stung my shorts-brave legs as I hiked off early the next morning. My goal: the top of Europe. Well, sort of. The 101-year-old railway up to Jungfraujoch – at 3,454m, the highest station on the continent – stops en route at the high mountain pass of Kleine Scheidegg. I planned to ignore the train, instead taking a long route up to the pass, before dropping down to Grindelwald beyond. And it was astonishing.

The chill Alpine air was as a water bucket to a drunk: an instant head clearer. Enlivened, I traversed rime-embroidered forest, cows clunking in the fields and snow peaks poking into the cloudless sky ahead. Eventually, the low sun snuck into the valley and vaporised the frost, which rose from the tussocks like dry ice. If my wobbly German sufficed, a plaque on a rock instructed passers to ‘Stop and marvel at the work of God’.

Miss Jemima took a slightly different route, but both of us were confronted by one of the most arresting sites in the Alps: the Mönch, Jungfrau, Eiger and many less name-grabby mountains rearing up like cobras about to strike; it was a closeness that felt, not intimate, but intimidating.

As I paused for coffee at Kleine Scheidegg, I yelped as an avalanche thundered down the Jungfrau’s side – just as Miss Jemima had witnessed a century and a half earlier.

‘We lived only in the enjoyment of the present’

At Grindelwald, my experience diverged dramatically from that of Miss Jemima. Though we were both in awe of the Eiger’s glaring north face, the glaciers she so admired – which in the 1860s stretched almost to the village itself – are now sorry shadows of their former selves. Instead of exploring these shrunken tongues, I opted instead to hike from Schynige Platte to First, via the Faulhorn. Easily accessible from Grindelwald by public transport, this must be one of the best day-walks in Europe, affording a panorama of lakes on one side, the entire Bernese Oberland on the other. Miss Jemima missed a trick here.

I think she was too impatient to reach the Giessbach Falls, a succession of cascades tumbling 500m from the Faulhorn’s valleys. I sailed there, across turquoise and mist-wisped Lake Brienz, the next day, but didn’t linger – Lucerne beckoned.

‘That zone of blanched mountains... more a heavenly than an earthly glory’

Lucerne is a pleasure, its medieval centre designed for ambling. But it was Mount Rigi I was keenest to see. This peak, known as ‘the Queen of the Mountains’, soars 1,798m above Lake Lucerne, best reached by catching a boat to Weggis, at its base.

In the 19th-century, this was the peak du jour. Like today’s travellers ticking off the Inca Trail, climbing to Rigi Kulm (the hill’s highest peak) and overnighting to awake with dawn and watch the sun rise was a must-do. The mountain has been a place of pilgrimage since the 16th century, when a medicinal spring appeared after the death of a local healer. As more tourists visited the Alps, so the mountain’s fame grew; it became particularly popular after 1868, when Queen Victoria was carried up it in a sedan chair.

Miss Jemima not only beat Her Majesty to it, she also ‘did’ Rigi the hard way, visiting pre-1871 – in which year a railway to the summit made pilgrimaging far less arduous. Today, there are multiple trains and cable-cars riddling the mountain. But I was keen to stick with my literary guide to the end. Disembarking at a cloud-shrouded Weggis to the clang of Sunday church bells, I plunged into mistily secretive forest, directed by a yellow trail sign announcing: ‘Rigi Kulm 4hrs 30m’.

The path kept spitting me out at a road for patches of uninteresting ascent, before enfolding me again amid apple trees and hedges Halloweened by spiders’ webs. It was eerie and solitary. I knew I was being needlessly, stubbornly purist but I was determined to follow Jemima, Mark Twain (who walked up in 1897) and the many others who dodged cherry-sellers and litter-carriers to convey themselves the top.

After an hour or so, the path opened up at the Chapel of the Holy Cross. It was built around 1500, beneath a cell occupied by a string of hermits; these men offered refreshments to passing pilgrims for alms.

I peered in: nobody home. I looked ahead: nothing to see save gloom. But then... A halo of sunlight pierced through the forest, beams lasering between the tree trunks. Suddenly, the world appeared. The enveloping fug simply dropped away, forming a thick fluffy sea that lapped a revelation of now island-like mountains. From being firmly, grimly inside the murk, I was now floating above it. I glanced at the chapel – heavenly indeed.

This was my Rigi moment. Of course I continued to the top, from where Miss Jemima had watched her must-see sunrise 150 years before, and from where this spectacle is most panoramic. But the top is packed with people and wires and stations and snack bars. That’s not where I wanted my story to finish. No, here, on the stoop of an ancient chapel in a land above the clouds, is where, gentle reader, my own Swiss Journal ends.

Wanderlust’s associate editor Sarah Baxter loves to walk and has completed the South West Coast Path