Switzerland, a mountainous country in central Europe with lots of lakes, alpine villages and the high peaks of the Alps. Famous for its chocolate and being home to numerous excellent ski resorts and hiking trails – who wouldn’t want to visit this country and the Swiss Alps!
Well, myself and my friend, Catherine, had actually booked to go to Romania, where we had planned to do lots of hiking. However, due to the corona pandemic and FCO advice against travel to Romania, we knew it was a no go. So we looked at what countries were possible, and found a company, Headwater, that was still offering bookings over the summer. Switzerland was one place they mentioned, and it was on my list of places to go hiking in, so less than a week later we were on the plane!
We flew from Heathrow to Zürich, with British Airways. I was very impressed by the efficiency of Zürich Airport. We quickly got through border control, collected our bags and walked the 2mins to the airport railway station. You can’t beat a bit of train travel, and it meant no car hire was needed, which is always a bonus and much more environmentally friendly! It was very easy to find our platform, and we quickly boarded the double-decker (love double-decker trains!) to Bern. At Bern we changed onto a local train heading to Kandersteg. Unfortunately I only saw a bit of the scenery as was suffering from a migraine. However, the bit I saw was a brilliant taste of what was to come.
We managed to get a train from the airport an hour earlier than planned – which with being in Switzerland, still meant our connection worked, with that also being an hour earlier, and we shortly arrived in Kandersteg.
Kandersteg is in the Bernese Oberland, the central-west part of the country, just south of the country’s capital Bern. The area is in a beautiful and unspoilt part of the Alps, since development arising from the winter sports industry has been controlled and contained. In Kandersteg itself, all buildings must be built in the traditional Swiss chalet style. Away from the major downhill winter ski resorts, Kandersteg has remained a pretty traditional little village, pleasant to linger in all year round. There are numerous activities in the village including mini golf, aerobics, bowling, ice rink and fishing.
Getting into the station an hour early did, however, mean that our hotel transport was not ready for us at the station. However, a quick look at the map opposite the station building showed it as only 5 minutes’ walk away. We were here to walk after all, and what better way to start to get our bearings in this alpine town than by walking to the hotel, Alfa Soleil.
The Hotel Alfa Soleil is a traditional, cosy and family-run hotel. It is on the edge of the village with a wonderful view over fields to the Swiss Alps behind. There are 35 rooms on three floors, and it has a small indoor heated swimming pool, a fitness room and a sauna. There is also a large lounge bar with an open fire where you can relax with a book or play pool or one of their board games.
On arriving at the hotel we were greeted by a very excited owner’s son – we were the first Brits that they had had since February, and they had been tempted to throw a party for us! It felt very nice to feel so welcomed! Checking into our room and freshening up, we then went for our welcome drink and was met by the owner, Nicolas, who did a briefing to us about all the walks in the area, and gave us a map. He was also very happy to see us, and was thankful the Brits were back! After a lovely four-course meal in the restaurant – included in the price we paid (and I can honestly say it was worth it!) – we went for an evening stroll down the main high street before getting an early night.
Now Switzerland is a very linguistically interesting country – it has four national languages: German, French, Italian and Romansch (similar to Latin). We were in the German speaking part, which was great as Catherine is fluent in German. Although I was warned that their German is a little odd, and they like to throw in the odd French word into their German!
We knew the weather in the Bernese Oberland part of the Swiss Alps can change quickly, like in any mountainous area, so we were well prepared for whatever it would throw at us. However, this area does enjoy higher regional temperatures than windward valleys, but this can also make it quite sticky and thundery. The website www.meteoswiss.ch was to become our new best friend. I highly recommend downloading the app to check the weather maps and rain radar.
Flora and Fauna
The Bernese Oberland region has the majority of Switzerland’s highest peaks (over 4000m), deepest valleys, tallest waterfalls and most extensive glaciers. Here the Alps have lush green meadows set against a backdrop of rugged mountains crowned by permanent snowfields.
The flowers of Switzerland are varied and abundant. The alpine flora is known for its beauty and splendour of colour, which can survive in the most rigorous conditions. There are over 3000 flowering plants in Switzerland, 160 of which are fully protected by law. These plants may not be picked or uprooted and may not be sold commercially. The Bernese Oberland region is no exception and there is an abundance of Alpine flowers (most stunning in June) including the famous bright pink alpenrose, edelweiss and about 25 different species of orchid.
Some 25% of the Swiss Alps are covered by forest and the alpine forests play an important role in preventing avalanches.
The fauna is also very varied in Switzerland, with many species protected by federal law. A few of these include brown bears, beavers, otters, lynx, ibex, chamois and hedgehogs! This protection also covers bird life including the golden eagle, falcons, owls, snow finch and curlews. If you are quiet, and it’s a sunny day, you are also likely to see some marmots up in the mountain valleys. So it may be worthwhile packing some binoculars!