The Most Beautiful Place on Earth:
The Bernese Oberland
All photos and article by Virginia Miller
Having been to dozens of countries – some many times over – there is one spot in particular that is the most beautiful place I’ve seen in five continents: The Bernese Oberland in Switzerland, marked by the dramatic Jungfrau mountain range. It’s so beautiful, in fact, that despite being an ocean and a city girl who seeks out places for cultural and edible delights, I have returned to this region three times now, though there is little to do but outdoor sports, which I don’t participate in at all.
The region is so breathtaking, I’ve been drawn back and over and over since 1999, when I first stayed in the tiny village of Gimmelwald up in the Swiss Alps, reachable only by cable car as there are no driving roads.
Twice I’ve stayed in Gimmelwald, which is a peaceful couple lanes of nothing but Swiss chalets with rooms for rents and one popular hostel – no shops, no restaurants, nothing but cottages, edelweiss growing wild, and cows with the bells around their necks tinkling continuously like a gentle wave.
During my return to the region this November I stayed in Murren, a larger village just above Gimmelwald, perched on the edge of mountain looking down to the steep valley below. The most bustling of the villages this side of the mountain, it is still small and sleepy, with a few hotels and inns, restaurants and one grocery.
How to describe the region? One cannot in words. Even pictures, though striking, don’t begin to do the reality justice. Picture Yosemite on steroids with Swiss cottages and chalets and you’re headed in the right direction.
The valley of the Bernese Oberland is entered into from the gateway town of Interlaken, a base from which many extreme sports adventurers begin.
Upon entering this magical valley, steep peaks, Switzerland’s highest, of nearly 14,000 ft. (roughly 4000 meters), rise dramatically on either side of the lush, green valley dotted with cows and farms. Many waterfalls line the valley – again, a hyped-up Yosemite – dramatically crashing down from great heights, depending on the time of year. The three mighty peaks of the Jungfrau, the highest, stand jaggedly and majestically above it all, the crowning glory in a place that is feels touched by God.
The perfection of both Murren and Gimmelwald is that they are perched between 3000-5000 feet on one side of the valley gazing directly across at the Jungfrau range. So direct, in fact, that the peaks feel almost in one’s lap, as if there for your own private benefit. Looking out from one’s room, deck or on any walk through the villages, is brand new every day, as if the heavens opened up and revealed wonders beyond imagining.
If I sound extreme, it is because the Bernese Oberland is truly that spectacular. It would take the hardest of hearts not to be awed. Here I am centered, connect with my deepest self and come away restored. That is why I take whatever efforts it requires to get here three times. I find even the images restorative upon returning home.
Besides the range of sports from hiking, skiing to base jumping, it’s all about taking in the views. On the same side – and one to three cable car stops up the mountain – as Murren and Gimmelwald, Piz Gloria is a peak famous for being featured in the James Bond film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Despite depressing, touristy food, the legendary revolving restaurant atop Piz Gloria is an idyllic way to take in 360 degree views of the peaks over a buffet breakfast (one breakfast is included per guest when staying at the Hotel Alpenruh, below).
A worthwhile half day excursion (or longer, if you linger up top) is the railway excursion to the highest point in Europe reachable by public transportation… in this case, by train. At just over 11,000 ft (3454 meters), the Jungfraujoch is a station situated between the mighty Jungfrau peaks: Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau. There’s touristy (more bad food) restaurants, ice skating rink, interactive exhibits, and a range of things to do once up there, but the highlight is taking in the icy views. Beware the thin air. It is difficult to breathe from this height and takes awhile to acclimate. The excursion and views sandwiched between the highest peaks of the Swiss Alps is unforgettable.
Hotel Alpenruh is pleasantly humble. Its charming, wood cabin exterior belies simple though comfortable rooms. And they’re not cheap: this is Switzerland, after all, where even salads often cost $20. Rates are lower during off-season times (check directly with the hotel) but you are paying for those views, after all. In fact, if you’re on the Jungfrau/valley view side, consider them million dollar views, possibly with a deck, which is where I want to spend much of my time.
Added perks of Alpenruh: it’s literally a few feet from the cable car so you can roll off the car with luggage, straight into the hotel. Perched on the edge of the cliff, the deck of the hotel’s restaurant, despite mediocre food, is an idyllic way to take in those killer views with a beer or glass of Fendant/Chasselas, the dominant white wine of Switzerland, rarely exported out of the country.
In Gimmelwald, I was charmed by the service and sunny apartments at Esther’s Guesthouse. Though minimalist, apartments are comfortable, ideal if there’s two or more of you. Best of all, they make their own yogurts (flavored with Germanic favorites like kirsch/cherry liqueur) and cures their own cheeses. The yogurt is ideal for breakfasts and their cheese and charcuterie with a bottle of wine purchased at the COOP grocery in Murren (see below).
Granted, good eating is sparse in a village that has few restaurants to begin with. Historically, Hotel Bellevue has done me right. The outdoor patio is a dreamy lunch spot with the peaks splayed out before you. The Bellevue serves rösti, one of my favorite rustic Swiss dishes. Essentially a glorified hash brown, shredded, roasted potatoes are loaded with other ingredients like ham and Swiss cheese, vegetables, onions and the like. It’s commonly eaten for lunch and dinner, particularly in these Alpine climes, and the Bellevue’s version is far superior to say at Hotel Alpenruh, which is disappointing considering that at times they serve a whole menu of varying rösti combinations.
In Gimmelwald, Esther’s Guesthouse makes their own yogurts (flavored with Germanic favorites like kirsch/cherry liqueur) and cures their own cheeses. Even if you’re staying in Murren, it’s worth a cable car stop or hike to Gimmelwald to purchase some of Esther’s wonderful goods made from cows roaming the mountainside (call ahead to make sure they have some and are open). The yogurt is ideal for breakfasts and their cheese and charcuterie with a bottle of wine purchased at the COOP grocery in Murren.
Though just a basic grocery store, part of the COOP chain, the Murren market is the source for foods to cook in your cabin or cottage, or prepared foods, cheeses, Alpine meats, bottles of local wines and the like to take back to your room. Don’t forget to grab individual or larger cartons of Swiss ice cream favorite, Movenpick (I love the passion fruit flavor).