Friday, 12 November 2021 13:08

Switzerland - the continuing unexpected journeys of an adventure journalist.

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Forget travel faff. No valley is too far, nor too steep or too remote if you’re travelling in Switzerland - using the swiss travel pass on the ‘Schweizerischen Bundesbahnen’ (SBB) trains or the bright yellow Postal bus which connects the significant villages of Saas Fee to Visp on the train line.

If you want to sample some of Switzerland’s slick travel system – then look no further than the Andermatt to Saas Fee as a striking railway journey that takes you into the heart of the Alps, Along the way pass breath-taking gorges, soaring cable cars  from valley floor to a summit overlooking Western Europe's largest glacier, the Aletsch glacier – and finish up on the bus system taking you all the way to mountain town of Saas Fee, some 1600m above sea level.

Jessie pointing at the cable car picture at the Gütsch Express

Our journey towards Valais started in Andermatt, with a dazzling bluebird sky – and rugged mountains surrounded us from all sides. We began with a scenic journey down the gorge, jawlines dropping as the train crossed through the Göschenen tunnel, and we walked back up following the journey the railways workers would have walked to reach Andermatt. Even as modern tourists, it’s easy to see how intimidating the landscape would have been to have been considered mining or forging a way through. Historically the landscape was believed to have been explored by the Romans as they referred to the Andermatt valley as “The Bear.’ With an idea that roughly stuck that each mountain had a ‘flat corridor,’ the Romans believed they were able to find this corridor – only to find themselves unable to reach Andermatt due to the impenetrable Devil’s canyon – the biggest obstacle in the Gottardo pass. We could also see the imposing scale of the via ferrata we had climbed the day before, looking both impressive and hugely intimidating.

Devils Bridge

Nowadays, we could easily forge through, with a series of easily marked footpaths and even routes through the side of the canyons that crossed the Reuss river and passed under the road from the North to the South of Switzerland via the Devil’s bridge. Our exploration took us back into Andermatt in the sunshine, where another feat of modern engineering - the Gütsch- Express Glacier cable car opened in December 2017, allowing for a speedy visit up to the new mid station at Natschen to sample a delicious lunch at Bergrestaurant Nätschen- Gütsch. Traditional fare – schnitzel, apple strudel but also delicious salads  sat on our sun-soaked terrace overlooking the Ursern valley. Savouring the moment, we peeled layers off,. Soaring peaks greeted us from all angles, yet we knew there were bigger peaks to come. Our bags had already transferred across thanks to the Swiss Pass, a luggage transfer that collected our bags first thing. So dressed for all four seasons, it felt a welcome relief to see Andermatt looking how it might look on a beautiful warm autumn day.

Travelling in first class style on the Glacier Express arriving into the Bernese Alps

It felt all too soon for our Andermatt adventure to draw to a close, as we welcomed the second part of our trip aboard the slick red train of the Glacier Express. Harking back to an era of glossy train travel, sipping a cup of black loose-leaf tea served in clear teacups, we reclined into our first-class seats inspired by the palette of the swiss countryside on the "World's slowest express train". But for a group of adventure hungry journalists, it wasn’t long before we were roused from our seats to hop off at Fiesch, where we boarded the cable car.  From the Talstation the cable car pulled dramatically up the shaded tree covered slopes of the Fischeralp before a second cable car completes the journey to the imposing peak of Eggishorn at 2869m.  

Our host, David from Aletsch tourism, told us to keep our ears peeled – and our senses were heightened as we stepped out at the top of the lift station – partly due to the sudden altitude gain– and to our delight, the sights, sounds and smells of Switzerland were brought to life. Swiss horn players played their elongated horns, trays of Valaisan wine sparkled in the mellow afternoon sunshine and platters of ham and cheese were carefully arranged for those piqued by hunger. But it’s the view – of the Aletsch glacier below us in the golden hour - that made me catch my breath.  The glacier, visible in its retreat, curved round the mountains and it was hard to remind oneself that we were nearly three thousand metres above sea level. As we looked across  it was a joy to see the iconic peak of the Matterhorn in Zermatt valley, with its distinctive silhouette clear of the clouds. In between the high intensity transitional moments of the trip, I paused to take in the view of the row upon row of mountains, glaciers and the golden hour hitting the peaks and reflecting on just how lucky I was to be able to see the mountains after experiencing an uncertain year.

Jessie looking out into the distance the Aletsch glacier visible just behind

Our hunger for adventurous views, activities and transportation took us via the postbus up the winding switchbacks to Saas Fee.  The cool mountain air and the sun lighting up the Mischabel mountains – including- the Dom at 4545m the highest mountain solely in Switzerland– welcomed us to Saas Fee, and our day wasn’t quite over! We arrived at Restaurant Vieux Chalet in Saas Fee, a traditional place where we were seated on the top floor.

After our day of adventures, one might be tempted to think it would be a quiet affair of consuming food before heading to bed – wrong! A mildly competitive round of cheese eating, which had a solo boiled potato, a cornichon, three silver skin onions and one melting slab of raclette, with a sprinkle of black pepper and paprika to season. For the winners, the glory was all for the taking, and with each round our restaurant’s hosts cleared our cheese-sheened plates before asking who was in for the next round. Five rounds of raclette later – I was done!  My annual raclette consumption suitably was topped up, whilst several tables of enthusiastic journalists made it to eight plates. A quick blast of cool mountain air and an apricot based sorbet (with apricot alcohol for those who drink) was the perfect conclusion to the festivities. We turned into our rooms at Hotel Allalin – with the mountains coolly beckoning us, the dark night sky alight with starlight.

Craft ale including alcohol free options available in the local Valaisan restaurantsjpg

Sport climbing in Brig in VALAIS and journeying to the geothermal town of LEUKERBAD Glacial spa LEUKERBAD to Gemmi Pass to Sunneg and Kandistag

For any adventurer, having variety to sample glacier hiking, gorge climbing to  climbing in mountainous regions are all part of the excitement.  In Valais, there are so many options, from hiking on a glacier above Spielboden lift, a short cable car ride up from Saas fee, to exploring a gorge using a combination of exciting via ferrata, Tyrolean zip lines  and pendulums. For me, it was a chance to head down the valley to Brig – and meet up with an all-female group of climbers including two friends I met out in Switzerland in August. So, for me, a slightly different itinerary to go sport climbing on the granite cliffs above Brig – but showing that it can be possible to find t-shirt climbing weather, even when there’s frost on the ground in the upper valley.

Climbing in t shirts even in October above Brig

Like most fair-weather sport climbers, the preference for climbing was to gather in the sun trap of the valley, which was Hegdorn, a quiet hamlet of houses on the hillside just above Brig and Naters, before walking into the south facing sheltered crags to get on some well bolted sport routes. From 4a climbs right through to 7c, there’s a nice concentration of mid-grade routes, including a number of amenable 5-6a routes that are well bolted on slabby granite.  I got on a route which involved a 6a rockover – a route that appealed to my thuggy trad climbing style, rather than just relying on crimps and finger strength. The sport climbing reaffirms my love of the variety of climbing available – one can truly climb in the mountains on snow or be climbing in t-shirt and shorts within less than an hour’s drive.

climbing at Tramul climbing crag

Our day took in the crags Rochtnubel and Tramul, before I bid my friends goodbye at Leuk and got the single bus up the valley to arrive at the geothermal town of Leukerbad. For me, Leukerbad was the location I knew the least about – and after a day covered in chalk and dirt, it was a surprise to see the taps and water basins where I went to rinse my hands flowed out steaming water. Interestingly, the town gets its steady supply of geothermal water, 1411 meters above the sea, from the spring which is found in the town square, named St. Lorenzquelle. It gets its toasty warm temperature from deep within the Torrent massif before emerging as thermal water at 51 degrees in Leukerbad! Walking round the town, it had an air of an older ski resort – but there was still the charming, old-swiss town feel to it in the narrow streets, with flowers growing from the hanging baskets and towering limestone towers shrouded in the evening mist.

Our evening in Leukerbad continued with the theme of tradition, as we headed to the ‘Old Dairy Farm’ which wasn’t a coded name for a hipster hangout but an actual working dairy farm in the centre of Leukerbad. The owners were delighted to show us how local farmers produce small batches of artisan cheese, including a small interactive whereby a local dairy showed us how they processed the milk;  boiled over a large pan heated over coals, before stirring through rennet to separate the cheese from the whey. We dined on a delightfully light, tasty puff pastry pie with leek, potato, and freshly made cheese topped with herbs and seeds. Staying at Leukerbad itself, there was certainly a bit more of a local traditional feel to the accommodation, with slightly retro appliances and furnishings compared to our previous stays, yet this arguably all added to the charm of our trip.

After nearly a week of food, adventure, and travel, I was very ready to explore the geothermal water at the spa – which included Therme 51° Hotel Physio & Spa. After a thrilling dip in 42-46 degrees naturally heated geothermal spring water to running slightly amok into the cool bath water at 4 degrees, the refreshment was definitely a stark contrast of temperatures, even for a cold water swimmer like myself . The spa also boasted a range of saunas, with one set at 85 degrees looking up to the limestone towers above the town; the beautifully sweet pine wood felt clean, calm and allowed for a moment of tranquillity.

Visiting Leukerbad, it felt as though the landscape was going to dramatically shift once more – and the scale in which we felt small and insignificant  was heightened when the clouds swirled, revealing imposing mountainous landscapes and green forest dotted amongst the dark grey landscape. It was luxurious, simply for the fact that it felt quiet, unobtruded by tourists using their phones – one could be content just relaxing in the spa space.

Our morning continued in the relaxing pace, as we made our way post spa to the Gemmi lift, A short cable ride up to the Gemmi lodge at 2350m, owned by the Loretan family overlooked the  entire vista, known as the Walliser Alps. After a brief tour round the Gemmi lodge, we could scarcely believe the value for money in the  accommodation options, which included hotel rooms that include the price of the lift, to a reasonably priced geothermal spa that overlooked the viewpoint. As another plus, Gemmi  also seemed to be packed with  numerous hiking and biking options. Leukerbad has recently opened 225km of bike trails varying in difficulty from trails that are less than 10km in length over easy terrain, through to challenging downhill enduro tracks.

Above Leukerbad

For hikers, the Gemmi pass reveals a rugged yet well-trodden zig zag path that skirts it way up to the top of the Gemmi lift station, with a viewing platform next to Berghotel Wildstrubel and one of Switzerland’s longest via ferratas started just below the platform, known as the Daubenhorn via ferrata. After a culinary feast of roesti, we needed to pedal over the Gemmi pass following in the historic footsteps of the ‘Thomas cook’  way route ( ‘Via Cook’) , a historic route that saw tourists visiting the area as early as 1863 as part of  the first organised  commercial trip across Europe in 1863.  A well-constructed panorama trail then passes alongside Daubensee lake down to Hotel Schwarenbach, accompanied by the gigantic rocky peaks of the Gemmi region and the towering massifs over on the Kandersteg side. As a pass from the Valais into the Bern region, the beginning of the Gemmi pass is relatively bleak and rugged, with the unusually slanted topped peaks in the pass. Heading down towards Sunneg, alpine meadows border the hiking trail a little further down at Spittelmatte. Pedalling hard (we were cycling at over 2300m) a small climb finally lead us to the Sunnbüel upper station. We hooked the bikes underneath the cable cars and found ourselves speedily heading town into  Kandersteg, before getting our final train to Interlaken.

Group photo at Sunneg

Combining a number of different forms of transport – from foot to cable car to glacier express train – our days transiting from Andermatt, Saas Fee, Leuk to Kandersteg, had  felt unexpectedly glamorous, exciting yet efficient. As an adventure focused consumer, mountain biking, hiking and climbing could be possible throughout the Valais area – but it was the additional spark of fine dining, geothermal spas and unexpected views that really put the location on the map. For a seasoned UK traveller, public transport had always been synonymous as a means to an end, yet by comparison it  showed us that in Switzerland it was possibly to combine the efficiency of a travel network that connected even the remotest valley and the wildest views, with a passion for bringing people closer and journeying to the heart of Valais in Saas Fee and lesser known geothermal  mountain towns such as Leuk as future, must visit adventure destination.

Read Part 1 here