Mürren, Switzerland: a dash of ski history under the Eiger

by Adam R

It's the birthplace of slalom, where the intrepid can powder-ski in thick fog or join the madcap Inferno race – but its small scale and quiet, old-world charm make Mürren ideal for families too

In the theatre of Alpine scenery, Mürren’s clifftop perch opposite the Eiger is the royal box. The views are sublime, the village is car-free and delightful, and any time of the season is good. Last December I had the cable car and the entire upper mountain to myself for a magical, if spooky, afternoon of powder skiing in thick fog. And in April I celebrated a snowy winter by skiing down through the woods to Lauterbrunnen at dawn and catching the lift and train back to Mürren in time for breakfast. The Swiss resort works equally well as a bolthole at New Year or half-term, being too small to suffer from either lift queues or overcrowded pistes.

It is also one of the cradles of Alpine ski racing, where Arnold Lunn invented the slalom, marched a group of his Kandahar Club cronies to the very top of the Schilthorn one sunny morning in January 1928, and raced them down to Lauterbrunnen: 15km and 2,000 vertical metres of every kind of snow imaginable except flattened piste.

This is more than historical trivia because Mürren still stages the Inferno every January, for 1,800 racers who enjoy the luxury of groomed snow and uplift by cable car. Scared ski lemmings and fearless tigers alike line up to clatter down the mountain at 15-second intervals throughout the day. Why not join them, for the blast of your skiing life and a long night of partying afterwards?

I love coming to Mürren to ski in the tracks of our pioneering ancestors, whether to scare myself witless in the Inferno or ski in a more relaxed fashion with my family, taking the snow as we find it on runs such Happy Valley, Hindenburg Line and Menin Gate. Some will say a dozen lifts and 50-odd kilometres of piste are not enough, in this day and age, to make a serious ski resort. I don’t set much store by these statistics. Arnold Lunn’s son, Peter – who at 95 plans to ski every day of this winter at Mürren – once gave me a better description of the ski area: “Three ridges running east to west, each with a north and a south side. Powder lasts longest on the north slopes, spring snow comes first on the south side. Our runs are quite challenging, and they make you think. Murren always gives you a game.”

Mürren is often described as a time warp, which is a patronising way to write it off as hopelessly out-of-date. It may be small, inaccessible by car and proud of its history, but the villagers embrace change when they see the point of it. Recently-installed chair lifts have greatly improved the top half of the ski area, and the Lauterbrunnnen funicular has been replaced by a cable car, reducing the journey time to Wengen (should you need extra kilometres to ski) to 38 minutes and opening up a new steep forest couloir. This year, a new chair lift will properly connect the two halves of the lower mountain. So if you haven’t been to Mürren for a while, it may be time to return.

EATING AND DRINKING

Mürren doesn’t do haute cuisine, though the 007 restaurant (www.schilthorn.ch, then click on "Schilthorn Piz Gloria" logo) on top of the Schilthorn – Blofeld’s lair in the film of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – nudges 3,000m. Prices are predictably rarefied there, but it is worth a visit for the revolving view and to take on fluid, preferably strong, before the steep descent. On a sunny day, the best lunch terraces are at the Pension Sonnenberg (www.muerren.ch/sonnenberg), Panorama Restaurant Allmendhubel (www.schilthorn.ch, then click on "Allmendhubel Mürren" logo) and the Hotel Jungfrau at the foot of the village nursery slope.

In bad weather, the cosy Suppenalp (www.suppenalp.ch) beckons for a mid-morning sharpener and a chance to demist the goggles, followed by lunch in the back room of the Stagerstubli pub in Mürren – or, after a challenging run down an unprepared forest trail and steep meadows, at the Pension Gimmelwald (www.pensiongimmelwald.com). Dining is mostly in hotels; the best options are the Bellevue’s Jagerstubli (www.muerren.ch/bellevue) and the Eiger Stubli at the Hotel Eiger.

HOTELS

Best in resort

A good hotel is a good reason to choose a resort, and to all aspiring Fawltys I would say, "Don’t bother with hotel school: go to Mürren and see how the Stahli family runs the Hotel Eiger". Looking after guests with a sure hand on the tiller, they carefully tread the line between tradition and modernity. Good points: Eiger views; pool (with a view); flexible room configurations, including apartments; a firm but fair line with children; film shows (out of earshot); a retro night club, where those with any hair left can let it down; and a merciful absence of stuffiness. “Leave your ski boots on,” Annelis Stahli said, as we came in one lunchtime covered in snow and hungry. “This is a sport hotel.” Bad point: electric shocks – from door handles, banisters and the breakfast buffet.

Middle of the road

For families with children in ski school, there is everything to be said for staying in the middle of the village. With the nursery slope, ski school office and the Allmendhubel lift on its doorstep, the Hotel Jungfrau is in pole position for a ski-in, ski-out holiday. The world’s most scenic ice rink is close, too.

Bargain

If the Eiger offers Swiss hospitality at its best, the neighbouring Eiger Guesthouse is unbeatable value. Alan Ramsay from Peebles and his Swiss wife run a cheerful pub with games room and internet stations; a Bahnhof-buffet-style restaurant; and a welcoming billet where we can choose en-suite comfort for the grown-ups and a simple attic dorm for the children. If we don’t like the walk through the village to the ski lifts, we can take the train to Winteregg and start the ski day there.