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On a self-guided walking holiday in Switzerland, Liz Stansfield experiences epic views, delicious food and is lulled by the sound of cow bells...
it’s on our first evening that I hear it. The jiggle-jangle of cow bells bouncing around the valley, so idyllic that the cynic in me wonders – are they pumping that out of speakers for the tourists? But no, it’s the sound of actual cow bells ringing out as a herd potters about, so perfectly in-tune that my boyfriend Simon ponders, ‘do you think they give each cow their own note?’ It’s possible...
I’m on a Headwater self-guided walking holiday in the Swiss Alps. A ‘package holiday’ with all of the positives but none of the constrictions. The trip includes our accommodation, meals, route maps and the all-important cable car passes, while giving you free rein over how you spend your time, allowing you to follow the extensive trails at your own pace.
Our home for the week is Hotel Alfa Soleil, a family-run hotel in the quiet village of Kandersteg. It’s a two-hour train journey from Zurich, and being Switzerland, everything is prompt, clean and without a rail replacement bus in sight. Watching the landscape change from our window seat is remarkable; inner city sprawl becomes rolling hills within 20 minutes, and a new mountain view reveals itself as the clouds thunder past us.
On our first full day in the mountains, we decide to make an early start as rain is forecast from 1pm. After breakfast and packing up our lunch (you make your own picnic from a dedicated sandwich station) we take on the first trail – a 10km walk to Blausee, along the river and through the forest to the blue Blausse lake. The trout farm is the billed attraction, but we wander behind it and stumble across a herd of friendly Alpine alpacas happily grazing away. The heavens open for the last leg back to base, so we hang everything to air in the drying room (they’ve thought of everything here), take a dip in the pool and enjoy a much-needed hot shower.
Dinner is a four-course delight, which sets the tone for the week. We tuck into salad and soup, followed by lamb in a whisky sauce and chocolate eclairs to finish. I’m not usually one for eating in a hotel every night when I’m away, but the food included in our booking is tasty and imaginative. That evening, we start the first of an ongoing ritual for the week – wrapping up and sitting on our balcony, a glass of red wine in hand as we overlook the Alps and choose our next walk. We’re full of energy the next day as the buzz of our first hike powers us through yet another 10km trail.
We’re early birds and get the first cable car to the top of the Allmenalp mountain at 8.30am. ‘Just you two?’, asks the bemused operator as we keenly arrive, not a single soul in sight for the resof the walk. On our return to the hotel, a poster in reception declares dinner that evening is a ‘Surprise Potato Festival’. As an avid carb-eater I’m thrilled with the news. After our balcony aperitif, we race down to enjoy the extensive buffet, in honour of the humble spud. Dauphinoise potatoes, chunky wedges, oven-baked jackets and more are served alongside fresh fish and meats. Of course, there is a cheese table to finish.
The following day is dry, so we book on to the included bus transfer to drop us in the tiny hamlet of Selden. I’m relieved not to be driving, as the mountain roads are not for the faint-hearted – I find myself holding my breath as the minivan powers up the valley through the rocks to our dropping-off point. On foot, we follow the 14km route down past the epic Klus Gorge, which surprises and delights with every turn. Around each bend is a glorious little bridge to help us criss-cross our way over the thunderous river.
The next morning we have a beautiful start; waking to proper Alpine sunshine streaming into our room for the first time on the trip, the day starts with us racing out to walk the 14km route to Oeschinen, the huge lake hidden in the hills. We take the enormous cable car up to the top and start the trek, greeted by a herd of friendly cows ringing their way across the hill. This is the first time on our holiday that I wish I’d listened to my mother and packed walking poles... The trek is pretty challenging with some of the paths bordering on vertical and the route requiring us to walk over some about-to-melt sheets of ice.
The climb is well worth the effort (1,939 metres to be exact), and we’re rewarded with the most stunning view of the lake and surrounding mountains. We’re so high, poor Simon’s fancy watch flashes a ‘stressed’ alert every time I go too close to the edge. If that isn’t true love... So remarkable and changeable is the landscape that every few minutes we seem to catch another glimpse of a different view. After several hours on our feet we eat our packed lunch in the sunshine at the hamlet of Oberbärgli before heading down around the lake to a restaurant for a well-earned beer.
On day five, we’re thrilled to be blessed with yet another glorious day, so we head up on the Sunnbüel cable car to walk to the Daubensee lake and Gemmi Pass. We manage about half of the 19km trek – sadly, we’re a week or two early for the last stretch, which is still covered in snow, but we do spot a fluffy marmot playing in the white stuff which more than makes up for it. With better equipment and footwear we could have braved it, but we turn back safe in the knowledge there is plenty more to see. On the return leg path we walk down forest paths and around two hidden lakes to find the perfect picnic spot. Sandwiches have never tasted so good as on this trip.
Every few hundred metres it seems like a different place: the bluest lake, a mini forest, boulder fields and sheets of ice. It was so reminiscent of Narnia that I was half expecting Aslan to pad around the corner. We descend the mountain, race across the valley and go up, up and away again on the Allmenalp cable car. It was cloudy when we visited this area on our second day, but we were determined to see the view. Again, we’re the only ones on the cable car.When we ask the operator how we signal to her that we’d like to come down, she replies casually: ‘Well, you just ring me from the top’ – like she was an Uber driver, not operating a feat of engineering on the mountain! Our last day calls for something a little different, so we take the train to Hohtenn.
We walk 16km to Eggerberg before catching the train back again. Bright sunshine follows us across the valley, which is more industrial than Kandersteg. But what this walk lacks in quaintness, it more than makes up for with interest points; two viaducts, a metal bridge, waterfalls, cliff tunnels and a clever canal irrigation system all make for excellent exploration. Yet again, we see only a handful of other walkers, with more cows, sheep, ponies, ibex and lizards to say hello to than people.
After six days strolling around the Alps, my watch tells me we’ve taken 190,000 steps, and climbed 464 flights of stairs. My legs will soon recover, but those cow bells? The magic of that music will stay with me for a very long time indeed.
How to book
The Classic Swiss Alps Headwater trip is £1,019 per person for seven nights including accommodation, breakfast, picnic lunches and dinner. Route directions and maps are included, plus a Kandersteg Guest Card for local discounts, a travel pass for buses and cable cars and free entry to the Blausee Nature Park. Visit headwater.com. SWISS operates up to 180 weekly flights to Switzerland from the UK. Fares start from £84 one-way. Visit myswitzerland.com.