On and off the rails around Bern, Switzerland

Date published: 04 Oct 16

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Equipped with a Swiss Travel Pass, Rupert Parker journeys to Bern, Switzerland’s capital, visits the Emmental cheese dairy and then explores the Jungfrau region.

Bern BridgeI’m interested to see how easy it is to get around Switzerland, without hiring a car or taking taxis, but just using a Swiss Travel Pass. I fly into Zurich and, straight out of arrivals, I’m in the railway station. It’s down the escalators a couple of levels before I’m on the platform and boarding my train to Bern. As you’d expect Swiss trains always run on time and it’s just under two hours to Bern, the capital of Switzerland. Now my pass is also valid on the tram so it’s four stops to the hotel.

Bern’s old town is UNESCO protected and the layout of its wide streets goes back to medieval times. It was founded in the 12th century on high ground, circled by a tight u-bend of the River Aare, making it easy to defend. The story goes that Berthold V, Duke of Zahringen declared that he would name his new settlement after the first animal he found hunting in the forest. It was a bear, (Baren in German), and they’re now housed in humane conditions in a special park.

Bern Clock TowerFor a capital, the city is tiny and it’s easy to wander around on foot. The Zytglogge, or clock tower, was built early in the 13th century as Bern’s Western gate and subsequently enlarged. It houses the bells and an astronomical clock with a mechanism manufactured on site, between 1527 and 1530, by Casper Brunner. It’s still going strong and you can climb up inside and watch the complex whirring of cogs and gears as it reaches the hour. A large bellows makes a rooster crow, then there’s a roundabout of twirling bears, before bearded Chronos, the Greek god of time, strikes the bell.

Time was also important for Albert Einstein who lived just down the street for two years when he worked at the Patent Office. The apartment, where he developed his Special Theory of Relativity, has been restored and furnished in period style and is open to visitors. It’s worth taking the funicular up to Gurten, known as Bern’s mountain, although it’s only a small hill rising to 858m. On a clear day, the city is laid out in front of you and there are views across to the Alps and the mountains of the Jura.

Emmental

Emmental cheese makingI use my Swiss Pass to take a short bus ride to the village of Affoltern, in the Emme valley, home to the Emmental Show Dairy. This has both a modern production facility and a reconstructed 18th century farmhouse where you can see the cheese being made over an open fire.  The name ‘Emmentaler AOP’ is protected and only fresh unpasteurised milk from local grass-fed cows can be used. The rennet, used to curdle the milk, is made from calves’ stomachs and the cheese has to be matured for at least four months. This is the time when the famous holes develop – a result of trapped carbon dioxide produced by fermentation. It’s fascinating to visit the cellars and see rows and rows of the 100kg wheels, each worth around £2000, in various stages of maturation. The longer they age, the more expensive they become, and the oldest here are over two years old.

Interlaken

From Bern, take the train to Interlaken, around an hour’s journey, particularly scenic a travels along the shores of Lake Thun. It was the building of the railway in the 19th century which was responsible for the town becoming a popular tourist destination. Lake ThunThese days it claims to be the ‘Adventure Capital of Europe’ and, judging by the rain of para-gliders falling from the sky, I can certainly believe it. I’m here for the food, though, and get an introductory tasting of cheese and chocolate before visiting a farm and downing a glass of fresh unpasteurised milk.

Next day, I’m riding the rails again, this time to Erlenbach, where I take the cable car up the Stockhorn. This is what they call their ‘Culinary Trail’ and the first stop is the middle station at 1642 m where I’m served a cheese salad at Restaurant Chrindi. It’s lettuce, tomatoes and boiled eggs in a cheese dressing, topped with shavings of three year old mountain cheese. It’s still early but makes an excellent breakfast with slices of fresh bread.

Cheese saladI get back on the cable car and ride to the top at 2139m where the Panorama Restaurant has views that don’t disappoint. You can actually walk through a tunnel in the mountain and stand on a glass platform to see the glorious views from the other side. The local sausage in onion gravy with rosti potatoes and vegetables fills me up, so I hike down the mountain for dessert. Situated at almost 1800m, the Oberstockenalp is a mountain refuge which has its own cows and makes a couple of 30kg wheels of alp cheese every day in the summer. I have to taste it, so turn down their offer of meringue dessert and instead get three pieces of cheese of different ages. The farmer reckons they could keep up to four to five years, but is usually sold out with his two year old.

FondueFor my final day, I get the train to Lauterbrunnen, before transferring to the rack railway up to the village of Wengen. At the tourist office, I pick up a backpack containing all the ingredients for a Fondue from the tourist office and set off up the Lauberhorn by cable car. At almost 2500m the scenery is spectacular with the infamous North face of the Eiger straight in front of me and the Jungfrau to my right. Surrounded by cows this is the perfect place for a picnic, so I light up the gas stove and heat up the fondue mix, containing Gruyere and Vacherin cheese, some white wine, cornflower and Kirsch. There’s special bread, already divided into centimetre cubes and it’s just a matter of sticking one of these on a fork and twirling it round in the bubbling cheese. Oh, and there’s a glass of white wine to go with it.

Cows and the EigerI’ve left my baggage in the left luggage at Interlaken station so, after taking the cable car down, it’s back there before boarding a train to Bern and then onwards to Zurich airport. I must say that, as you’d expect the Swiss timetable is remarkably well designed, so changing trains is easy and it’s often just a matter of crossing the platform. You do need to pack light and, of course, be able to negotiate the carriage steps, but it makes for an extremely stress free method of travel, far easier then driving yourself. Although first class is available, second class is perfectly adequate for most needs.

The Swiss Travel Pass entitles you to unlimited travel on consecutive days throughout the rail, bus and boat Swiss Travel System network. It also covers scenic routes and local trams and buses in around 75 towns and cities and will offer 50% reduction on most mountain-top trains and cable cars. An included extra is the Swiss Museum Pass which allows free entrance to 490 museums and exhibitions. 3 days costs £162 pp and you can also get 4, 8 or 15 days.

Accommodation

The Hotel Allegro The Eigermakes a comfortable base in Bern.

The Hotel Stella in Interlaken is centrally located.

Food

The Restaurant Bel Etage in the Gurten Park has stunning views over Bern.

The Kornhauskeller is situated in an old wine cellar in Bern and serves traditional dishes.

The Hotel & Restaurant Luegibrüggli is just outside Interlaken and has good views over the lake.

Restaurant Benacus serves modern European food in Interlaken.

Tourist information

Bern Tourism Train to Interlakenhas information about the city.

Interlaken Tourism has information about the town.

My Switzerland has information about the country.

SWISS operates more than 170 weekly flights to Switzerland from London Heathrow, London City, Manchester, Birmingham, Edinburgh and Dublin from as little as £55 one-way.

The Swiss Transfer Ticket covers a round-trip between the airport and your destination. Prices are £104 in second class and £170 in first class.


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