The Swiss Alps and landscape: a guide

The high drama of Swiss landscape.


Stereotypes are dangerous. In a malevolently nonchalant speech, Harry Lime, in the film The Third Man, says, "Remember what the fellow said: in Italy for 30 years, under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love. They had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock!"

Not true. Switzerland has had its share of fighting, and during the Renaissance the Swiss Confederation acquired a reputation of invincibility. Pope Julius II hired the Swiss Guard to serve the Papacy precisely for this reason. But strangely, Harry Lime's version continues to hold sway. People forget that this country with a population of just eight million leads the world in several areas, such as wealth per adult, watch production and gold refining. "Ah," people then say, "but apart from that, there's not much to do in Switzerland. When people in Lugano want to go out, they go to Milan."

Again, not true. Switzerland's cities offer a superb selection of entertainment of all sorts, often at levels far superior to what you can find in other European capitals. Just one example: jazz, which can be enjoyed at major festivals such as Montreux, and also in countless smaller venues up and down the country.

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Switzerland has something else that sets it apart from other nations. Its natural environment makes into a gigantic open-air theatre. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the pass of Kleine Scheidegg in the Bernese Alps. Rising steeply from the flat valley floor, the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau are dramatic in themselves. Above all, it is the north face of the Eiger that forms a gigantic amphitheatre, on which the climbers attempting to scale the 1,800-metre face can be viewed by an audience from the terrace of the Hotel Bellevue des Alpes.

On many occasions, the progress of the men scaling the north face of the Eiger turned from melodrama to tragedy, as they fell prey to the quickly-changing atmospheric conditions, the frequent avalanches, and the sheer size of the task. Nowhere on earth is there such a contrast at such a small distance: as climbers endured the harsh, freezing conditions on the rock, they could see the luxury hotel where guests were enjoying warmth and hospitality. The north face was climbed in 1938, 75 years ago this year, making it the last of the six great such faces in the Alps to be conquered. Not surprisingly, the Eiger has made it to the screen, first in a film starring Clint Eastwood, The Eiger Sanction, and more recently in the North Face. It continues to draw climbers, for whom it is one of the world's classic challenges. Over 60 have died trying.

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You can get a taste of this drama in total safety by hiking a trail that runs along the base of the north face of the Eiger. The section from Männlichen to Kleine Scheidegg is easy, and it is open as a winter trail, with the snow specially prepared. Further on, the Eiger Trail takes you to the base of the face.

From other viewpoints nearby, you can watch while nature performs its work of sculpting the landscape. The Aletsch glacier is the longest ice flow in the Alps and the heart of the Swiss Alps’ Jungfrau-Aletsch UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is about a kilometre thick, containing 27 billion tonnes of ice, and it flows at about 180 metres per year, gouging the valley floor, a living illustration of how the dramatic Alpine scenery was created. You can view the upper part of the Aletsch glacier from the Jungfraujoch station, at 3,450 metres height, reached by the train that runs from Interlaken.

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Lastly, there is living proof of the way in which nature can become a natural theatre at Creux du Van, near Neuchatel. It's a fair trek to get there, but once you've arrived, you see a gigantic natural amphitheatre – though the higher rows of boxes are reserved for the ibex and marmots!