On this trip I get to wander in the clouds and dream of spies, cheese and mountains. The city of Bern unfolds its past both in fact and fiction and I get to meet the cows that make all that lovely Alpine milk.
Switzerland’s capital, Bern is the administrative centre of the country offering a long and illustrious legacy of espionage for the curious visitor. History and fiction are interwoven in this beautiful location and present a fair share of ‘intelligence’ both real and imaginary. I set out to discover the truth behind some of the myths and facts with the help of a little chocolate along the way, well this is Switzerland after all.
From the eternally easy City Airport, Swissair took me to Zürich then I continued on by train through the lush countryside that is Switzerland in the summer. The mountains and hills looked a handsome green yet to don their cloak of white for the winter months. This is the perfect time to visit.
Before heading into Bern I stopped in the Emmental Valley where the world famous ‘holey’ cheese is made. It’s September and the cows were making their way down the slopes for a warmer winter in the barns but the cheese process still goes on. Next to the main factory is an old stone dairy now used for demonstrations. It is here that I saw the traditional method of heating a vast cauldron of milk over an open fire then watching it cool, the addition of rennet and then the magic starts. The milk starts to form curds which in turn get thinker and larger. The room is a lovely smoky reminder of how things used to be done. With a combination of heating and cooling and then draining, the cheese was ready to start maturing. The modern equivalent can be seen in the main dairy. Just as fascinating are the cellars where the cheeses are kept for up to two years.
All the cheese is made with milk no further than 20km from the dairy. And those famous holes? They are formed because of the bacteria in the cheese creates gasses that can’t escape the hard salted rind so expand to form pockets of air. From 200l of milk you will only make 20k of cheese. A finished round weighs in at an impressive 70k. Taxation was originally on number not weight so 70k was deemed as much a man could carry. These days they export 73,000 rounds worldwide.
John Le Carré’s early life is well documented, he went to Bern University after having to leave his prep school as his father, Ronnie failed to come up with the necessary fees. Le Carré’s highly personal novel The Perfect Spy takes us to Bern and its environs. It is here that the eponymous Magnus Pym learns the craft of spying and betrayal. Walking around Bern I saw many of the sights that are depicted in the novel and TV adaptation.
The centre of Bern is largely untouched, some of it goes back 1000 years. It has a relatively small population of 135,000 but because of the administrative demands provides 150,000 jobs. This is why the railway system is so good. Switzerland was founded in 1848 before that it was a matter of the 26 cantons co-operating with each other. The Old Town has a UNESCO status. One of its charms has to be the 6km of covered shopping arcades and restaurants. It is possible to shop (and there is everything here believe me) in the pouring rain and not get wet at all.
Climbing the 46 stones steps inside the old clock tower is worth the effort (it’s open every afternoon to the public) to see a 14th century clock in action. The Heath Robinson device whirs and clicks as the hour approaches. Then on the hour all mechanical hell is let loose. Seven bears dance in a circle and a series of wires and levers activate large bellows that are deployed to announce the hour with the sound of a rooster. Totally mesmorising.
Ian Fleming had a love of Switzerland too. The books and films have returned to it on many occasions notably in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Bond goes undercover as genealogist Sir Hilary Bray from the London College of Arms. His mission is to uncover his archenemy Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the head of SPECTRE. He discovers in a lawyer’s office in Bern that he is living nearby at the top of Shilthorn Mountain in a place known at Piz Gloria. The building where the office is depicted in the film is still there, Hotel Schweizerhof.
Einstein also lived in Bern in 49 Kramgasse, one of the prettiest streets in the Old Town while working as a patent officer before finally accepting the post of Professor Extraordinary at Zürich University in 1906. In another nod to Bond the actress Ursula Andress was also born in the canton of Bern. There must be something in the water, which is freely available throughout the city from stone fountains.
Next stop was Interlaken, the town between lakes Thun and Brienz and the gateway to the Bernese Oberland region of the Swiss Alps. It is quite beautiful in the autumn nestling at the bottom of the mountain range. I checked out some local some cheeses and had a chocolate lesson at Funky Chocolate where they hold regular ‘tutorials’ and cooking lessons in the art of all things chocolate. Great fun for a family or group of friends. If that wasn’t enough enjoyment for one day I came across a wooden toyshop (think Pinocchio) with a lady carving the most detailed and exquisite wooden horses. Her talent was incredible as she carved I asked her how long it had taken her to acquire the skills necessary to produce such lifelike sculptures, she paused and looked up, smiled and said “All my life”.
This part of the world is as busy and active in the summer months as it is in winter. Paragliding is very popular as is sailing, gliding, bungee jumping, mountain biking, river rafting and hang gliding. You just have to look up and you’ll see giant ‘birds’ floating slowly to terra firma. I ate at the spectacularly positioned Luegibrüeggli Hotel and restaurant. It looks out over the lakes (you can eat outside if it’s warm enough). They served wonderful food with venison as the standout dish.
The next day was to be a test of my mettle (and my legs). My mission “Should I choose to accept it …” was to ascend the Simmental mountain range and descend 2180m down the Stockhorn on foot trying out different restaurants along the way. This seemed like such a good idea at the time. The weather was outstandingly sunny and kind, no wind or hint of a cloud. This culinary trail was going to be a breeze.
The first thing to understand is that going down a mountain is easier than going up, but only just (I saw a Swiss mother with her child in a frame on her back going up at quite a pace …They are very fit in this country). The food was a good compensation for what was frankly the most exercise I had done in years. As I went down manageable but sometimes very steep paths I could see for 50km. Thankfully I had good shoes (essential). A cheese salad (Alpine of course) followed by a 45-minute walk, then sausage and rösti. By this time my calves were screaming at me, but on I had to go on, what could I have done anyway, I was literally half way up a mountain.
Earning dessert was hard. The stops gave me just enough time to realise how inadequate I was physically, then I had to get up and do it all again. The views were just out of this world as I kept going for what turned out to be a superb panna cotta. The last section of the trail after the sugar hit took me along the edge of a large lake and to a gondola where I returned back to normal life (but not walking, that would take some days). This whole trip was a bargain at €79 plus cable car fees (but my Swiss Rail Pass cut that cost in half). Would I do it again? Yes in an instant, despite the long trek and effect on my legs, about 13k in total it was worth it for the views and sense of achievement (and the very welcome food).
When one’s body just can’t do anything else than sit, where better to sit than on a ferry boat on Lake Thun on a sunny afternoon for an hour or so drinking a chilled glass of Spiezer. That’s what I did, taking in the lake views and wonderful houses that look over the water on the way back to Interlaken, a great day and a perfect end to it.
My final day was in Jungfrau region. Home to the mountaineering triumvirate of Eiger, Monc and Jungfrau it offers the climber challenges to say the least. At nearly 4000m The Eiger wins on the thrills front. For mere mortals like myself it offers an otherworldly view of the mountains, cattle and dancing clouds. I was at 2200m, the climate changes rapidly here so it’s good to be prepared as one moment it is sunny the next overcast and cold. I went with some others to have an outdoor picnic of sorts of that most traditional of Swiss dishes, the fondue. So, gas stove and frying pan in hand (you can hire all the stuff you need from the tourist office) we set about having a great meal in the company of the last of the year’s Alpine cows that hadn’t gone down to their barns.
Switzerland really is one of my favourite countries. It provides so much especially in the summer months, a brilliant train system that will get you anywhere within a few hours, views that are unparalleled and chocolate and cheese. What’s not to like? Then there’s the cultural angle, whether it is history you’re after or the more modern references that I enjoy so much. It has been a magnet for creative people for centuries. Byron, Shelly, JPW Turner and numerous writers have all had their wanderings. There is a scene in the classic John Le Carré book, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy when under secretary Oliver Lacon, says to George Smiley “It’s the oldest question of all George, who can spy on the spies”. Well give me that job in Switzerland and I’ll be a happy man. I love Switzerland.
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