High up in the Bernese Oberland lie the villages of Wengen and Murren, long time favourites of British skiers. Even if you don't ski, this snowy paradise is well worth a visit
Wengen - the English connection
Just about every tourist in Wengen speaks perfect English, and the locals too. That's not surprising really. Switzerland first became a popular winter destination for British aristocrats in the mid nineteenth century. Then in 1902 Sir Henry Lunn organised his very first winter resort package tour to Wengen. Twenty years later, his son Arnold invented the first slalom race in nearby Murren. And so the tradition of downhill racing, and Britain's strong connection with this beautiful Alpine region, both took off. (See Adam Ruck's exciting guide on the Inferno Ski race at Murren).
Now, there are two things I should make clear. Firstly, I do not enjoy skiing. Nor do I like to be part of a dominant group of British tourists. So when I stepped out of our little carriage at Wengen station, you might think my visit was doomed. Not so, this trip was thoroughly memorable.
The wonderful thing about Wengen is that it is car free. When you arrive in nearby Lauterbrunnen, you must complete the final ascent by cog railway. It was dark as we approached Wengen station after a steep climb. The view suddenly opened up far below us. A mass of lights twinkling along the flat valley floor gave hints of grandiose mountains and sheer cliffs on either side. I could barely wait until morning to appreciate the full scale of our surroundings.
I was not disappointed. Wengen is cradled by mountains of such splendour, that I could gaze on them forever. To memorise the name of every peak and crag may seem impossible, but they are as familiar to the locals as street names to a Londoner - Schilthorn, Tschingelhorn, Breithorn, Silberhorn, to name a few, and little Lobhorn, my favourite, which sticks up like a crooked thumb.
Alternatives to skiing
Jungfraubahnen mountain railway
Towering above Wengen are the famous peaks of Jungfrau, Monch, and lastly the Eiger, which lies tantalisingly just out of sight. The development of Wengen as a ski resort was advanced by the network of trains which trundle up this mountainside. Of course you don't have to ski to appreciate this landscape, just take the train. Many tourists are drawn year round to travel to the very top of the saddle between the Jungfrau and Monch peaks. Known as the Jungfraujoch, this is a Unesco World heritage site. After stopping for a close up view of the Eiger, the train makes the final ascent to 3454m through a long tunnel. Friends tell me that the views are phenomenal. They also warn that it is expensive, and that it gets very crowded.
A return ticket to Jungfraujoch from Interlaken Ost costs 181 CHF. By purchasing a Swiss rail pass you can save 50% on all train fares. I cannot recommend the Swiss Travel Centre too highly if you are planning travel within Switzerland: www.stc.co.uk
After some reflection, we decided to postpone the Jungfraujoch until another quieter time. We opted instead for the silence of the mountains, and the swish of passing skiers. Donning our walking boots we followed the train route as far as Wengernalp. From here the third peak of the Eiger should have come into view, but alas it was obscured by cloud. We called in at Allmend Restaurant (3823 Wengen; +41-33-855-5800) half way down for an excellent glass of gluhwein. This modern chalet-style restaurant has panoramic views, and replaces one which was swept away by an avalanche. Try the fondue, or local game in autumn.
Over the next few days we followed more trails around Wengen, through forests and past traditional wooden farmsteads, catching the sweet smell from over-wintering cows on the freezing air. This is perfect walking country, and I plan to return one spring to enjoy the alpine flowers.
The Eiger at last: a walk to Murren
Murren lies hidden in the mountains at the far end of the spectacular Lauterbrunnen Valley. To get there you must climb out of the valley by cable car to Grutschalp, and then take the train. As skiers piled into the carriages, we crossed the tracks to begin our trek through the snow. On this occasion the sky was azure blue and, at last, we were able to enjoy spectacular views of the north face of the Eiger on the opposite side of the valley. At Murren we climbed high above the village. As skiers descended from the Schilthorn, concentrating on the piste, the only people in the world who could have enjoyed better views than ourselves were the hang-gliders, drifting down the valley before us.
Murren is a lovely village, even quieter and more remote than Wengen. We watched the cable cars ascending the Schilthorn, scene of Bond movie On Her Majesty's Secret Service (€56 return), then turned back towards a pretty little stubli, Hotel Alpenblick (Double rooms from 136 CHF), we had seen at the entrance to the village. The proprietors were very welcoming, and our chicken specially cooked for us. It must be a wonderful place to stay.
Other winter sports
Tobogganing is great fun. We borrowed a friend's sledge, returning to Allmend to enjoy the exhilarating downhill run. We ended up on the nursery slopes above Wengen, where weaving lines of children follow their instructors like obedient ducklings. (You can hire toboggans at Murren, where there is also a large ice rink and indoor swimming pool which are free to Alpenblick guests.)
As evening falls, skiers, tobogganers and walkers all head towards the lights of Wengen, where freshly cooked doughnuts are sold outside the bakery. Their coffees and quiches are good too.
Cafe Gruebli, close to the nursery slopes, is a good spot for coffee and cakes.
Where to eat and drink
Here is some advice that I gleaned from a Wengener.
The best restaurant in Wengen for quality and value is Hotel Berghaus. Renowned for fresh water fish, I am told their chateaubriand is out of this world. Locals appreciate the Fontana wine which is from the hotel's very own vineyard. There is also a very warm welcome here for guests. Double rooms from 160CHF, breakfast included.
For special occasions head to Hotel Caprice. Double rooms here cost from 340 CHF in winter with breakfast, and from 200 CHF in summer. Their restaurant is excellent, but expensive.
The best hotel in Murren is Hotel Eiger. The restaurant is very good and the spa/pool looks wonderful.
The best pub is Sina's Place (3823 Wengen, +41 33 855 31 72). They have an excellent pizzeria next door too.
The best club is The Blue Monkey (im Gruebi, Wengen, www.club-bluemonkey.com). Drinks are expensive however.
And the English connection?
Well, now I fully understand why Wengen and Murren have become so popular with the British. This is a place where the mountains rule and I too hope to return.