This year, a highlight of my European summer was the day I spent hiking in the Berner Oberland region of the Swiss Alps. I was with a wonderful group of traveling friends, all eager for a ramble in the high country.
Fortunately, you don’t have to be a mountain climber to see the Alps up close. The Swiss transportation system is as remarkable as its majestic landscape. Cog railways and cable cars whisk you up into the type of scenery that’s usually only accessible with ropes and crampons.
My group started the day with breakfast at the revolving restaurant that caps the Schilthorn peak (10,000 feet), looking down at the high meadows where Swiss cows spend their summers, Heidi-style. We’d gotten up there effortlessly (in four stages) by riding the Schilthornbahn cable car. Whether filled with skiers in winter or hikers in summer, that glass-and-steel bubble is filled with mountain joy — especially when the Alps are out in all their glory.
From a value point of view, remember that early lifts are discounted all over the Alps, and, because the sky can cloud up by late morning, early birds enjoy the crispest views. The lesson: Pay less (about $65 round-trip for the Schilthorn) and see more by ascending early. It’s not inexpensive, but when you’re surrounded by cut-glass peaks and breathing fresh mountain air, this is one of Europe’s great deals and most vivid experiences.
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For our hike that day, we chose the super-scenic North Face trail (4 miles, 2.5 hours), starting our walk high about the tree line and cruising through meadows carpeted with alpine flowers. I love being way above the villages, but not too high for the cows or goats. It’s a joy to greet these tame alpine companions and listen to their random symphony of bells.
The milk from those cows grazing in the high meadows is destined to become treasured Alp cheese (“Alpkase”). People say that the character of the cheese is shaped by the wild herbs and flowers that the cows munch. Some locals claim they can tell which valley the cows grazed in just by the taste.
Cow herders up here are versatile — most are master cheese makers and have veterinary skills, too. Little dairy farms have been renovated to meet European Union standards. Failing to meet these would mean their cheese could not be exported. But still, traditional quality survives all these modern regulations.
Alpine farms welcome hikers to peek at the cheese-making action, so we drop in at a farm hut to watch. We meet Veronika — a licensed cheese maker. Each morning she and her crew milk the cows and heat a copper vat of milk over a wood fire. As it slowly curdles, it’s stirred at just the right temperature until the consistency is exactly how Veronika likes it.
Then, at just the right moment, she swings the vat off the fire, quickly dredges the vat with her cheesecloth and packs the fresh cheese into frames. This process is repeated every day for 100 days here in the high country — a cow’s udder knows no weekend.
As we go on our way, we descend steeply through thick forest. We have no trouble navigating, thanks to great signage. The dedication to order and organization that distinguishes Swiss culture is obvious. Helpful signposts point us in the right direction, gauge the degree of each trail’s difficulty, and give us an estimated hiking time. Humbling, because these times are clocked by local senior citizens. You’ll know what I mean after your first hike.
Bicyclists can pump up their adrenaline on rented mountain bikes in the same Swiss Alps. Besides dedicated bike trails, there are smoothly paved service roads, designed for the little hay wagons of farmers. These scenic lanes are off-limits to cars, but they are wide open for — and a joy — for bikers.
Finally, our hike reaches its happy ending, popping out in a flowery meadow at the tiptop of my favorite Swiss village — Gimmelwald. As he has for 30 years of visits, Walter Mittler is waiting there at his Hotel Mittaghorn. Way back in my student days, I stayed at the rustic youth hostel in town. Walter invited me to upgrade and stay at his place, and I did. We’ve been friends ever since.
Walter symbolizes the importance of personality-driven establishments to genuine “Back Door” travel. He’s 90 now — and still going strong. We share a frosty beer — it hits the spot after my exhilarating day. Sharing this most beautiful spot with friends old and new is enough to make me raise my hands and holler hallelujah.
Edmonds-based Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. His column is featured weekly on seattletimes.com/travel.