Mar
01
2014

Wandering Traveler

The unforgettable Bernese Oberland region of the Swiss Alps

The unforgettable Bernese Oberland region of the Swiss Alps

The Most Beautiful Place on Earth:
The Bernese Oberland

All photos and article by Virginia Miller

Murren architecture

Murren architecture

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.

View from my room at Hotel Alpenruh, Murren

One section of the view from my room at Hotel Alpenruh, Murren

At the highest point in Europe - communing with the birds

At the highest point in Europe reachable by train – communing with the birds

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.

Another view from my Hotel Alpenruh deck

Another view from my Hotel Alpenruh deck

From atop the Jungfraujoch

From atop the Jungfraujoch

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.

Dreamy views on the Jungfraujoch train ride

Dreamy views on the Jungfraujoch train ride

From the valley floor

From the valley floor

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.

Breakfast views from Piz Gloria's revolving restaurant

Breakfast views from Piz Gloria’s revolving restaurant

From my room

In my Alpenruh room

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.

Taking a stroll through Murren

Taking a stroll through Murren

TO DO

Dozens of cliff jumpers into the valley below

Dozens of cliff jumpers into the valley below

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.

Views from the Jungfraujoch train

Views from the Jungfraujoch train

TO STAY

Hotel Alpenruh at night

Hotel Alpenruh at night

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.

Sipping Chasselas from my deck

Sipping Chasselas from my deck

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).

Murren window

Murren window

TO EAT

One of many waterfalls along the valley

One of many waterfalls along the valley

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.

From the Jungfraujoch

From the Jungfraujoch

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.

Rösti, rösti, rösti

Rösti & sausage

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).

From the valley floor

From the valley floor

Swiss chalets in Murren

Swiss chalets in Murren

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Feb
15
2014

Wandering Traveler

The beauty of Zurich

Zurich during a day of boat races on the river

24 Hours in ZURICH

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

Zurich Old Town architecture

Zurich Old Town architecture

Zurich is an underrated city. Though not as romantic as many European cities, the Old Town section is rife with gorgeous historic buildings, winding cobblestone streets lined with chic boutiques, flanking both sides of the Limmat River on the northwest tip of Lake Zurich. It’s a scenic, walkable setting. Having been to most of Switzerland’s cities from Geneva to Lucerne, Zurich is easily its most cosmopolitan.

Striking Zurich

Striking Zurich

Though I only had 24 hours in Zurich coming down from the Alps on my way home to San Fran, I found myself longing for more time here. I similarly spent a day here during my first visit to Europe back in 1999. It’s clearly got a strong dining scene, an emerging artisanal cocktail movement, plenty of history and unique sights, proven by the riches stumbled upon in merely 24 hours.

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Clock tower of St. Peter’s Church

Cheeky & environmental soup instructions

Cheeky, environmental soap instructions

SLEEP: My favorite hotel stay during 2013 fall travels in Europe through four different countries was Zurich’s 25hours Hotel Zurich West (they have a few other hotels in German cities). Granted, I questioned my destination when we pulled up to what looked like a corporate office building surrounded by office highrises, freeways, wide roads – very American and sparse. But upon entering, it’s a hip haven for cosmopolitan travelers. Additionally, the convenient Zurich metro/train picks up just outside the hotel, an easy, 10-15 minute ride to Old Town.

One section of 25hours' lobby

One section of 25hours’ lobby

The hotel clientele skews young, attracted by its mid-century-meets-modern style designed by Alfredo Haeberli. There’s ping pong in the lobby, Mini Cooper toy cars in rooms (they have a Mini-Cooper partnership, offering rides around the city in red Minis), and sparse, colorful rooms with cheeky phrases on pillows and soaps. They do a lovely breakfast (included) and the young staff, as cool as the hotel is, are helpful and attentive.

Pillow instructions on my 25hours bed

Pillow thoughts on my 25hours bed

Clean, playful lines in 25hours rooms overlooking center atrium

Clean, playful lines in 25hours’ rooms overlooking center atrium

Striking views over Zurich from our table

Striking views over Zurich from our table

DINING: Zurich West, home to my hotel and Hotel Rivington & Sons (below), is also where one Michelin-starred restaurant Clouds sits on the top 36th floor of Switzerland’s tallest building, Prime Tower. In a building packed with businesses, Clouds’ glass walls gaze out over the city, with the Alps viewable during the day.

Clouds' artistically delicious dishes

Clouds’ artistically delicious dishes

Clouds is pricey – easily a couple hundred Euro per person with wine, but the dishes are inventive and delectable, worthy of that Michelin star. Lush Iberico ham from Spain comes out as a starter, while the sommelier recommends stunning Swiss and Austrian wines we might not see in the States. With Zurich sparkling below, Clouds is a memorable Zurich meal.

Multi-room Peclard cafe

Multi-room Peclard cafe

Bordello-esque red room

Bordello-esque red room

BAKERY: Peclard is a dream of a bakery/cafe. Yes, the front patio is, oh-so European. The multi-floored cafe with wildly different rooms is enchanting. The low-ceilinged, wood rafter and red velvet-lined room with mismatched chairs and settees is nothing short of seductive.

What “seals the deal” is fantastic Paris-by-way-of-Switzerland pastries and menu items, including idyllic quiches and crepes. In the midst of perfect croissants and macarons, they bake a mean apfelstrudel (apple strudel) in keeping with the location.

Parisian delights in Zurich at Peclard

Parisian delights at Peclard

Upstairs in Rivington & Sons

Upstairs in Rivington & Sons

COCKTAILS: Alongside sacred cocktail den Kronenhalle and jazz/whisk(e)y haven (a must on my next visit), Wiider Bar, Zurich has a burgeoning, if small, artisanal cocktail scene.

Hotel Rivington & Sons (in a hip, Zurich West highrise that houses Clouds) exemplifies the rising Zurich scene with small spirits brands alongside big names, extensive classic cocktails and a hidden upstairs bar that feels like 1930′s-meets-hunting-lodge (animal heads lining the hallway), given a coating of modern, dimly lit chic. Bartenders are friendly and laid back, while New York is the stated bar inspiration, proven by classic American tunes playing in the background.

Over the bar at Hotel Rivington & Sons

Over the bar at Hotel Rivington & Sons

Scot & Scotch alley

Scot & Scotch – down the alley

SPIRITS: If you can ignore the stern, schoolteacher-like shopkeeper I stumbled across (who clearly can’t discern the real spirits aficionados in her shop) in Fine & More, next door to Peclard, you’ll find a wonder of a shop lined with carafes with taps. Purchase refillable bottles of edelbrande (brandy and fruit brandies), grappa, liquors, Calvados, whiskies.

Down a quiet alley on the posh West side of the Limmat River is Scot & Scotch, a charming whisky shop ideal for the Scotch and Japanese whisky lover.

LOCAL POPCORN: I got hooked on local gourmet popcorn, Snackolos, this visit, particularly a tart sour cream and a sweet, Chinese 5 spice-esque star anise.

Fine & More spirits shop

Fine & More spirits shop

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Feb
01
2008

Wandering Traveler

DINING IN SWITZERLAND

Dining pleasures are boundless in this stunning country… cheese and chocolate may be the items that come to the uninformed mind, but if you dine at a noteworthy restaurant in most Swiss cities or villages, you’ll also experience savory meats, the freshest of lake fish, generous vegetables, and always… clean, fresh cooking.

LUCERNE

Lucern

Lucern

After two visits, Lucerne remains my favorite Swiss city. Though small as big cities go and hardly cosmopolitan, it is chic, intimate, charming. Staying in Old Town is necessary to experience the full allure of the city, as many outlying streets hold wonderful gems but aren’t as stimulating visually. Old Town is a car free zone of cobblestone streets, extensive shops, cafes, famed bridges, all on a glistening lake.

Pfistern: English menu found by clicking “Kuche”, then “Menuvorschlage”) – Though in a 1300’s building with original painted façade, the mobbed sidewalk tables made me fear: “touristy”. Not so. Inside, it’s peaceful and pub-like, if a bit musty. On the upstairs deck, there are quieter outdoor tables (with that gorgeous lake view). Salads are fresh, loaded with lentils, beans, tomatoes. I love classic regional dishes like Aechtes Lozarner Chugelipastetli, a puff pastry stuffed with mushrooms, pork, veal and raisins in a creamy sauce. Mmm! The crème-de-la-crème is Butterfish Medallions. Fresh from the lake, they’re a buttery revelation served with herbed rice and a hefty portion of pistachios, almonds, pine nuts and orange slices. The salty nuts, light citrus juice and texture of the fish make for a flawless dish.

Brassiere Bodu: Kornmarkt 5 (Plz 6004), Lucerne, 041-410-0177, – An elegant French bistro in the heart of Old Town, literally next door to Pfistern, Bodu’s excellent service sets the tone for an enchanting meal of classic French cuisine. A whole fish, fresh from a nearby lake, was perfectly baked with onions and herbs stuffed in its stomach. Quiche, steak and salads were all flawless. The wine list is award-winning and Bordeaux focused. Paired with the classic French dishes, it makes for one of Lucerne’s best meals.

MONTREUX

Montreux

Montreux

Paradise Le Chalet: After a fruitless Sunday night search for an open restaurant, I stumbled across this touristy fondue spot, entering with trepidation. What followed was a surprisingly delightful fondue meal of lush melted cheese paired with thinly sliced meats, pickled vegetables, a delightful local Swiss white wine, Fendant, and a shot of Kirsch (cherry liqueur, similar to brandy) mid-meal to aid in digestion of all that cheese.

MURREN

An idyllic village a cable car ride up the mountain from divine Gimmelwald, Murren provided restaurants when we needed a break from cooking in our Gimmelwald cabin.

Alpenruh: Service is harried at this touristy chalet but never a better view was had with your food and drink. Sitting outside on the deck, breathe in mountain air and sigh with your good fortune to witness such an incomparable view. You can’t go wrong with local beers on tap and traditional Swiss fare such as Rosti and Alpen Pasta, baked with caramelized onions and gruyere cheese, which we saw regularly on regional menus. An ideal lunch spot.

Bellevue Hotel: For more gourmet local food, visit the Bellevue. We sat outside on the deck, again taking in that magnificent scenery (Alpenruh has a better panoramic perch but Alpine views everywhere are nothing short of ethereal). Washed down with a Swiss Apfelwein (hard Apple Cider), one of the best dishes of my Switzerland travels was traditional Rosti, or hash browns, served with sausages, topped with a fried egg, bacon, cheese and a golden onion sauce. Sheer decadence. Other good dishes: hearty beef and mashed potatoes in red wine gravy, and spaghetti with veal medallions (breaded, schnitzel style) in a red pepper olive sauce. We finished up with a tart filled with plump blackberries and raspberries, topped with homemade cream.

Murren

Murren

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Jan
01
2008

Wandering Traveler

EDIBLE SWITZERLAND

By Virginia Miller

switzerland

Switzerland is incomparably glorious land and after a second visit, I only want more.  What surprises is that the food, hardly noticed next to reigning European cuisines, French and Italian, holds such fresh, satisfying foods well beyond the cheese and chocolate they are rightly known for.  I was amazed by fresh seafood, rich desserts… better food than I had expected in this pristine country.  More of that in my next issue. For now, I share great Swiss finds for drinks or snacks:

gin-alpsdrinkEsther’s Guesthouse, Gimmelwald: The most gorgeous place I’ve been to (twice now), Gimmelwald (not Grindelwald, the more well-known, touristy ski resort also in the Swiss Alps) is nothing short of a piece of heaven. Gimmelwald is a small smattering of chalets and inns up in the Alps, without cars, shops or restaurants; edelweiss grows in abundance; the soundtrack of cows’ constantly ringing bells. Food must be purchased elsewhere (restaurants are in the village of Murren, a cable car ride up the mountain). We rented an apartment in Esther’s Guesthouse, a local farm with plain but clean digs and friendly staff. In what one can hardly call a shop, rather a shelf with a handful of items off the front of the house, Esther’s sells cheeses, meats and yogurt from their local cows… a highlight of my Swiss food adventures. Cheeses, thinly sliced meats and sausages from local cows are rustic, savory. The yogurt is simply the best I’ve ever had in flavors such as vanilla bourbon, mango, cherry and chocolate. If only I could get it elsewhere, which I realize would clearly defeat the point, I’d be a devoted fan.

Patisserie Tea Room Francey: Avenue des Alpes 62, Montreux, 021-963-4107 – Located a couple blocks up from picturesque Lake Geneva, I stumbled upon this Patisserie, my favorite café of the trip. The cappuccinos are perfect: French-style, rich, strong. Pastries are likewise perfection with tarts, croissants and a Gruyere ham roll so addictive, I had to order a second one for the road.

Brassiere Café de Paris: Lausanne – In another Lake Geneva town, this café is famed for chocolates, which are clearly its highlight. They can be ordered online and are on display in the front of the café. Their pastries, pates and coffees are French-style (as is much in these mainly French-speaking Swiss towns), though the simple Patisserie in Montreux was better. A worthy stop in Lausanne for breakfast, coffee or chocolate.

Giger Bar: Gruyeres – The quintessential Swiss village of Gruyeres (yes, where the heavenly cheese comes from!) is well worth a visit for its idyllic rolling hillsides bordering mountains and excess of cows roaming the surrounding countryside of a medieval walled, one street village. It’s so adorable, so very Swiss, that it’s almost a shock to come across the Giger Bar and Museum of famed local artist, H.R. Giger, who designed creatures and sets for the “Alien” movies. The museum is so dark and disturbing I had to shake it off upon leaving. But the nearby Bar, lined with Alien vertebrae ceilings, walls and chairs, is an eclectic, funky find not just in Gruyeres but anywhere – a memorable change of pace. Famed local dessert of heavy cow’s cream with berries, Double Cream, is served here, as are bar drinks, coffees, wines.

Piz Gloria, atop the Schilthorn: Famed for earth-shattering views of the Jungfrau Alps as captured in the James Bond film, “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”, Piz Gloria is a ‘60’s looking revolving restaurant atop the Schilthorn peak (the majority of traffic you’ll see passing through Gimmelwald are day trippers on their way up to this 10,000 foot peak). It’s obnoxiously touristy, complete with a shop full of key chains and postcards. But for a front row view of the breathtaking, 14,000 foot Jungfrau range, we ordered drinks only (and were kindly given a table) and spent an idyllic hour over coffee and Baileys circling the Alps.

Zum Storchen Cafe & Bar: Kornmarkt 9 (Plz 6004), Lucerne, 041-410-602 – In the center of Old Town, this tiny café has a Spanish tapas and wine focus but also serves great coffee and pastries in a modern, cozy setting. There are only a couple tables, including some outside on the square, with most seats at the bar. The smokers can be excessive, but I found it a memorable spot outside my hotel to journal over coffee while observing a sophisticated crowd of young and old debating culture over drinks (at least from what I could pick up in German!)

Movenpick: Perhaps my favorite Swiss snack of all, one I savored in stands along Lake Geneva, from grocery stores, in cafés in Lucerne… Switzerland’s own Movenpick ice cream. Double Crème with Meringues was a fabulous local tribute to the cow cream of Gruyeres and meringues, also “invented” in Meiringen, Switzerland. But Movenpick’s real glory lies in fruit flavors: light but creamier than sorbet, potent with flavor, it was all I could do not to go back for seconds after each visit (I did anyway!) Lemon & Lime, sour and tart, with zest of both fruits, was perhaps my favorite. But how could I choose that over the Grapefruit & Orange or Passion Fruit & Mango?? Better to just love them all… and wish we had a distributor in the States.

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