Jamie Morton

Jamie Morton is science reporter at the NZ Herald.

Switzerland: A break in Brienz

Jamie Morton stops by the Swiss lakeside and its romantic grand hotel.

The funicular train is a highlight of a visit to Brienz.
The funicular train is a highlight of a visit to Brienz.

They may live in a picture-perfect alpine paradise, yet even the Swiss sometimes are awe-struck at parts of their own country.

Brienz, straight out of a fairy-tale storybook, is one those places.

Sky-high mountains hug its namesake lake, a turquoise-hued sparkling wonder and one of the principal selling points of the quaint Bernese Oberland village, where 3000 Swiss live.

Below wisps of mist, the lake's brilliant sheen never fades as you chug up steel alpine inclines in an open-air carriage on the Rothorn Bahn, which happens to be the only steam-powered, cog-wheel train still operating in Switzerland.

Since 1892, apart from a few years when the track was closed, the public has been able to enjoy the 1678m climb up the Brienzer Rothorn mountain and the rich panoramic views it commands.

First ambling past charming village chalets, then lowland forests and homes perched higher up, the journey eventually reaches steep, rocky slopes inhabited only by roaming cows, a few bold farmers and even bolder hikers, who opt to walk to the summit, Rothorn Kulm.

High up at the Hotel Restaurant Rothorn Kulm, I enjoy spaghetti Napolitana and a glass of Swiss pinot noir, but my attention remains fixed on the vista immediately below - craggy ranges that cut a jagged frame for the lake beyond.

I'm soon back down there, enjoying the sun on the top deck of a historic steamboat that takes me to the romantic Grandhotel Giessbach.

Europe's oldest funicular hauls me from the boat station to the hotel, an elegant 19th-century gem that enjoys peaceful vistas across the lake from its front terrace, and toward the Giessbach Falls that come tumbling down 14 rocky ridges, dropping 500m in all.

War movie buffs may recognise this heavenly setting from the final episode of the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers in which Damien Lewis' Richard Winters takes an early morning swim in Lake Brienz.

Sky-high mountains hug Lake Brienz.
Sky-high mountains hug Lake Brienz.

In its early days, the hotel was favoured for high-society soirees, but two world wars took such a toll that the magnificent building was nearly demolished. Its saviour was celebrated Swiss ecologist Franz Weber, who pulled together the funds to buy it, then gave it to the people of Switzerland.

Visitors come across the lake to enjoy the hotel's beautiful surrounds. But the hotel's manager insists that, despite its stately splendour, it's not a luxury resort, but is for all visitors to enjoy.

I stroll back to my room. The windows are opened to catch the sound of the gushing falls a stone's throw away; I count myself lucky to be one of those visitors.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Several airlines run stop-over flights between Auckland and Zurich. Brienz is reached by road or rail; the Grandhotel Giessbach can be reached by car or steam boat.

For further information, visit: www.myswitzerland.com/en/Brienz; www.brienz-rothorn-bahn.ch; www.giessbach.ch

Visit www.myswitzerland.com/rail and www.raileurope.co.nz for information and booking of Swiss Passes.

Jamie Morton travelled as a guest of Switzerland Tourism.

- NZ Herald

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