My mission to James Bond mountain: HUGH GORDON clambers aboard trains and funiculars to soak up views from Murren, the car-free Swiss village made famous by 007
Snidely, comedians of the kind who infest Channel 4 schedules have an insult for most of the good things in life. For example, Switzerland, according to Ian Smith, is a ‘mountainous land full of banks where old people can go and legally kill themselves.’
How charming! Considering that Switzerland consistently tops lists as the best country in the world, perhaps the comic – who was born in Goole in Humberside – is just jealous.
Anyway, the country isn’t just all chocolate, cheese and trains that run on time. In fact, though the trains do run on time, connections can be as complicated as travelling between Aberdeen and Penzance.
My journey from Zurich airport to the Alpine village of Murren involved three trains – and the timetable shows that sometimes it can be six.
But once up in the pristine air of the Jungfrau region, all worries about transport can be forgotten. Murren, like the Croatian island of Lopud, Herm in the Channel Isles and Venice, is one of the few parts of the world that are car-free – by choice, unlike for Londoners whose mayor Sadiq Khan is imposing a Net Zero plan for the UK capital – and it has a wonderful funicular, too.
Mountain highs: Hugh Gordon travelled to Murren in Switzerland, which is one of the few places in the world that’s car-free – by choice. Above is the village’s funicular railway
They may be cliches but every one of those Julie Andrews-ish images of Switzerland still thrills. Indeed, the hills are alive with the sound of cowbells and the smell of wild thyme.
Truly, it is wildflower heaven. On my visit in June, I counted more than 200 species: Lady’s Bedstraw, Bird’s-foot Trefoil, Twayblade orchids… During the same two days, my horticulturalist friend Non Morris (researching her new book on Alpine flowers) ticked off countless more. Nature is unstinting in its generosity.
But it is Man’s ingenuity that attracts tourists as well.
Never having seen a James Bond film, it took me much persuasion to visit the mountaintop restaurant Piz Gloria, where On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was filmed in 1969.
The 85.60 Swiss francs (£75) return cable car fare seemed as steep as the climb to the 2,970 m (9,744 ft) summit.
But with total global box office sales of £7.1 billion from all Bond movies, the attraction is clearly huge. The gondola to the top was as crammed as Daniel Craig’s budgie-smugglers.
Once there, you can have snowball fights all year-round, visit a Bond museum (and sit in a simulation stunt helicopter), learn how Diana Rigg stormed out of one local hotel while filming because the manager (an Avengers fan) called her Emma Peel, and see footage of Joanna Lumley as one of Blofeld’s 12 Angels of Death.
Not forgetting the 37 Swiss francs (£32) all-you-can-eat and as-much-Prosecco-as-you-can-drink buffet lunch in a room that revolves 360 degrees in 45 minutes.
Hugh paid 85.60 Swiss francs (£75) for a return cable car ride from Murren to the summit of Schilthorn
Hugh paid a visit to the mountaintop restaurant Piz Gloria, where Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was filmed
Chills and thrills: Diners at Piz Gloria are seated in a room that revolves 360 degrees in 45 minutes, Hugh reveals
Flashback: George Lazenby as 007 in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the film that put Murren on the map
Oh, and the toilets, which have signs above the urinals: ‘Aim like James!’ and ‘Shake, don’t stir!’. These were overall winners of the 2018 International Toilet Tourism Awards.
Talking of Bond baddies… what is it about American tourists? There are lots in the Alps. Self-identifying with the big mountains? The good exchange rate? Both, probably.
But one unpleasant example of this nation became so angry when I mentioned that under management rules his (video-game playing) young children should not be in the hotel sauna, that he threatened to hit me with a sauna bucket wooden ladle.
True to their own national character, the Swiss hotel staff acted as international peacekeepers.
Hotel Eiger in Murren is family-run. Such establishments have the same friendliness and reliability you expect from John Lewis. A particularly deft touch was noticing the birthdate on my passport and secretly organising a birthday dinner for me.
In the village of Gimmelwald, a shop takes the ‘never knowingly under-sold’ philosophy one step further. Payment is done on a trust basis. The Swiss Honesty Shop calls itself the ‘home of positive statements’. Pinned on the wall are notes from visitors saying things such as ‘restored my faith in humanity’.
Next door, in the bar, a man was filling envelopes with tiny souvenir cowbells, while his wife (‘My husband may own this place but it’s me who runs it!’) offered a unique dark lager called Black Monk – which gives any Dublin brew a run for its money.
Apart from the fact they have signs saying they sell eggs, smoked sausage and cheese (three of the area’s five main foods, only missing bread and wine), the farmsteads of Gimmelwald wouldn’t look out of place in the 17th Century. All haymaking is done by hand as the slopes are too steep for mechanical aids.
No wonder there are so many mountain myths. For example, two patches of snow on the top of Mount Schreckhorn are said to be the souls of two nuns who were banished for leading immoral lives. The white spots are a constant reminder to every new generation of young women to keep their virtue as pure as fresh snow.
Hugh stayed at the family-run Hotel Eiger (above) in Murren. ‘Such establishments have the same friendliness and reliability you expect from John Lewis,’ he says
Hugh notes that on Schilthorn, you can visit a Bond museum (above) and sit in a simulation stunt helicopter
The Swiss Honesty Shop in the village of Gimmelwald calls itself the ‘home of positive statements’
Food-wise, it’s not all raclette and fondu: Hotel Eiger serves a knockout Asian-style beef fillet with okra and mushrooms with a green curry coconut sauce, while on the other side of the valley, much lower down, Hotel Barren in Wengen offers pike with nettle sauce, strawberry risotto and watercress cappuccino.
The Jungfrau area is also known for winter sports. There are some remarkable photos displayed in Murren of the Anglo-Swiss ski team in 1924, with competitors wearing bow ties, berets and no gloves.
More people will be able to visit for the 159-day winter sports season when the world’s steepest cable car is built between Stechelberg and Murren, able to transport 800 people every hour. Costing €102 million (£87 million), construction crews have had to use an electric excavator because diesel machines have trouble starting in such thin air.
But, as is custom with the Swiss, everything is going like clockwork. There seems nothing the country cannot do well – everything works beautifully. It’s like watching a Roger Federer backhand.
B&B doubles at Hotel Eiger from CHF330 (£298) per room per night for two sharing. Packages from CHF1215pp (£1,096) – includes seven nights B&B in double room, return trip up Schilthorn and one hour massage (hoteleiger.com). Travel information at myswitzerland.com and resort information at muerren.swiss.
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