Training to become James Bond is something that has struck me and countless others as one of the coolest pursuits on the planet. Achieving it (or anything near it) is quite something else. My point of reference has always been On Her Majesty’s Secret Service one of the ‘lost’ Bond films. Unfairly criticised in my view, it is strong on plot, has James Bond falling in love, ultimately marrying and follows the book more closely than many of the other cinematic outings.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The setting for most of the action is Switzerland, the Bernese Oberland region to be precise. Home to the triumvirate of big hitting mountains: The Eiger, Jungfrau and Mönch. Our protagonist displays a number of winter sport skills on his visit, skills that any devout trainee must conquer to a large extent. This was is my journey in the quest of these skills and training to be James Bond.
Getting to Switzerland is a breeze, a short flight from City Airport with Swiss and you land in Zurich. Then their über efficient train service takes over. The best way to achieve freedom of travel (unless you happen to own an Aston Martin) is with a Swiss Travel Pass, as well as giving you access to virtually the whole rail system and a reduction on cable cars and mountain railways you can visit 480 museums and use buses and trams with the pass as well. There are various durations, for my mission I chose an eight-day pass, first class of course, this will set you back 472 Euros and you can cover a lot of track in eight days. Family cards are available offering very good rates, depending on their ages your children could travel free.
There’s a nifty travel app SSB for your smart phone that can do all the hard work of planning your journey and sorting out all the connections. The Swiss railway system is wonderfully efficient and clean. It’s a real pleasure to use in every way.
The view from my room at Royal St. Georges Hotel in Interlaken has one of those views that you see in films and on postcards. An old church, mountains with snow and clear blue skies with a nip in the air. Before my training was to start I thought a little culture would do no harm. Bruno Hänggi is a successful artist, his medium? Ice. He freezes water and carves the most amazing animals and figures. Using chain saws, chisels and saws to swiftly transform a three-foot block of ice into an eagle or lion. His skills are much in demand, Madonna and other A-listers are on his client list, as are most of the 5 star hotels in the Interlaken region. The Swiss have a way of using what they have plenty of in creative ways. The clarity of the ice is paramount, the clear ‘Fox’s Glacier Mint’ look is achieved by slow freezing.
Sufficiently impressed with ‘ice’ I decided to get a bit more involved. Off to the Ice Magic ice rink in the centre of the town. A large rink with skates for hire and a glass or two of Glühwein(the deceptively alcoholic hot wine drink) and I was set to go. This temporary rink has proved such a success that they plan for it to be a regular event every winter. I also learned the rudimentary skills needed to play Bavarian curling. Different shaped ‘stones’ a little like fat skittles are used and are much lighter. But it’s Scottish curling that I would learn more about later as it plays a role in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service when Bond under the alias of Sir Hillary Bray plays at Bloefeld’s mountain top lair Piz Gloria.
After all the frivolity on the ice it was the right time to hit a decent restaurant. Ox in the centre of Interlaken serves fantastic beef and rosti. They add a bit of humour to the menu by offering a larger steak, which is advertised as a Gentleman’s and a smaller one a Lady’s cut. The mixed group I was with took this with good grace and in many ways Switzerland is a land where time has stood still and sometimes that’s no bad thing. The service and all the food we had that night was faultless. The room was typically Swiss with lots of wood and candles with warm sheepskin rugs to sit on if you were feeling the cold.
In the morning after a good breakfast I headed up into the snow covered protected moorlands of Lombachalp. This picture perfect landscape was to be my challenge. A snowshoe trek enabled me to climb up through the trees and see the best of the terrain. It is quite a strenuous activity and certainly warms you up. I had a couple of poles to help me ascend – you need them as although the tennis racquet like shoes stop you from sinking in the snow they make you a touch unstable at the same time.
An early lunch of pasta and meat sauce was taken on the mountainside in the cuckoo clock shaped restaurant Jägerstübli, a tiny well-run eatery that has a cosy wood burner. This was all good training building to the main event of learning to ski. I could feel the backs of my calves aching already so I knew there were tougher times ahead.
After a scenic train journey I arrived in Wengen. This mainly car free village is really very pretty, with historic churches and wooden chalets although there was not very much snow on my visit the views were still spectacular. I could work out where we were exactly as the small tables on the train have maps showing you the mountains and ski runs and peaks of the region, an ingenious use of space. It was in here that I caught my first glimpse of the foreboding north face of The Eiger. When it was first conquered it took three days to reach the summit, these days it can be achieved in less than three hours!
An afternoon of instruction in the game of Scottish Curling ensued. This is a game of immense skill and judgement. A bit like croquet on ice it can bring out the meanest streak in any of us. The ‘stone’ slide along the ice, you never actually pick it up. I did try, they weigh 20kilos so are not easy to manage. But they can glide forever. You really don’t need much strength to play the game just nerves of steel and a lot of skill. One of the main challenges is when one of your team’s stone needs some extra help, you may have seen people ‘brushing’ with brooms in front of the stone as it makes it way to the ‘house’ or target area. This brushing reduces the friction between the ice and the stone thus making it travel further. The problem you encounter is when inexperienced you have to be careful not to slip on the ice as you are doing it. They move at a surprising speed!
The next day found me being kitted out for the main event, skiing. This whole process is quite time consuming and important to get right. The boots have to be a very tight fit. They angle forwards so encourage stability on snow but on terra firma prove very hard to walk in! They are also very heavy. The ski size is determined by your weight and height. And of course you have to have waterproof trousers, warm jacket, goggles, helmet and gloves. It feels not unlike a spaceman must feel before the liberation of a reduced atmosphere allows them to ‘bounce’.
All suited and booted I placed my gear safely with the instructors and headed to the cable car. It was time for lunch and where else would you have lunch in this part of the world other than at Piz Gloria, at the very peak of The Shilthorn, Ernst Stavro Blofeld’s lair and laboratory. The cable car journey teases you with a touch of historical provenance by playing just a three second sting from the Bond soundtrack of the film. A lovely touch that gets you in the mood but isn’t overkill.
As we climbed higher I could feel the temperature drop and my adrenalin rise. This really is one of the holy grails in the world of Bond. It doesn’t disappoint. As I ascended to the deck level my guide mentioned that we were travelling on Europe’s second highest escalator. I asked where is the highest? “Just round the corner” he replied. The second one takes you to a viewing platform where your nerves and trust in engineering are tested to max. You can walk out above the mountain with nothing but a thin grill of iron separating you from falling down the 3000M mountain and if that isn’t enough there is another area made of glass which really sorts the Bond’s from the villains.
The curved staircase that features in the film is still there and is the way up to the revolving restaurant (yes it really does revolve 360° every 43 minutes) How cool is that. The view is quite staggering, over 200 peaks can be seen from here as you sip your cappuccino (with 007 on the froth – really!) Even the bun of the burger I ordered had the Bond logo braised on top. You don’t come here for the food though it’s the view and nostalgia. Under the restaurant you will find an interactive Bond World 007 museum. You can learn all sorts of info about the making of the film, enjoy a simulated helicopter ride up to Piz Gloria, or toboggan down in pursuit of Blofeld. It’s great fun and a brilliant place for all Bond fans.
It was time to man up and get onto the slopes. I have had over the years a deep desire to try skiing but have never found the time or money to actually get on with it. All togged up I gingerly made my way to the nursery slopes. I was taught to use one ski then the other and finally both at the same time. It is a very weird experience to ‘float’ on the snow. And even more alarming how little control you initially have. I was feeling quite pleased with myself as I had made it on the snow, tried a bit of sideways walking up the slope (what goes up must come down!) only to hear a muffled whoosh (your helmet cuts out a lot of noise) and then bashed into and knocked over by another learner. This is all par for the course and once you have mastered getting up again (not as easy as you might imagine) it was on with the task of learning to ski.
By the end of my two-hour session with Ski School Mürren I could ski down a gentle slope, turn and stop where I wanted to. All the time I was on the snow I had John Barry’s addictive soundtrack from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service reeling through my head to spur me on. The whole thing was exhausting but a real blast. I feel set to pursue it more now. Someone in our class pointed out that the first two hours are all about learning how to stop and not crash. I’d say that’s about right, I was also frightened of breaking something but didn’t. I can’t wait to get a bit further than those first two hours!
Meiringen is another of those sleepy Swiss towns that looks like an impressionist on tour has painted it. The brush strokes of the buildings set against the drama of the mountains is quite beautiful even on a rainy Sunday morning which is when I found myself there. After wandering around for a bit I had a sudden pang in far recesses of my memory. Could this be where I thought it was? Meiringen has two great claims to fame. One I think much greater than the other. The lesser of the two is that believe it or not this is the town that gave the world its first meringue back in 18th century. Like all good stories of provenance many, of course contest this. Who wouldn’t want to stake claim to such a wonderful confection? What is true is that warming the egg white in a bain-marie, which produces a harder, denser meringue when cooked, makes a Swiss meringue. I tried one of the many on offer at Tea Room Frutal in the high street said to be the very bakery that first produced the meringue. Wonderful cakes of all shapes and sizes including meringues are available it’s an indulgent and sweet affair that’s worth trying.
The other greater claim to fame is that it’s here in Meiringen that a certain Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson set off to visit the Reichenbach Falls before Dr. Watson was lured back to the village under false pretences to care for a sick English tourist that left Sherlock exposed alone to meet his nemesis Professor Moriaty at the falls. Although totally fictional this reference in literary history is taken seriously in Meiringen. If you choose to make the pilgrimage that many have made, you will be rewarded with a dedicated museum and a splendid bronze statue of Sherlock Holmes with deerstalker and pipe deep in thought. You can visit the Reichenbach Falls in the summer months.
Switzerland has offered me many interesting pursuits for this visit, I set out to undergo some sort of Bond training. As well as achieving this (I feel that learning how to ski, ice skate and play curling a certain measure of success) I also had some wonderful food, discovered the origins of meringue and stumbled across another fictional hero in Sherlock Holmes. Swiss offer over 200 flights into Switzerland from the UK every week. It’s hard to see how a holiday in Switzerland could not be rewarding, with its brilliant rail system, easy air links from the UK an avalanche of culture and spectacular scenery, elementary when you think about it.
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Just got back from Switzerland myself (Nendaz in the 4 Valleys region). I adore the mountains but can’t say I’m a big fan of skiing (I’m more Mr Bean than Mr Bond when I don skis!) Great article. Must catch up soon.
Thanks for your comment Mrs Bean! It is a beautiful country that has much to offer even if skiing isn’t your thing. I pleased you had a good time with your visit.