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Swiss Mountain Air

Courtesy Swiss National Tourist Office

It’s just a bench. But what a view.

Beneath a small church on a mountainside in Wengen, Switzerland, this weather-worn bench sits in the shadow of the Jungfrau mountain and overlooks the Lauterbrunnen Valley stretching far below. The panorama that unfolds here is spellbinding. Numerous waterfalls empty into that valley from cliff faces thousands of feet above. From this bench, those distant waterfalls are silent, but it’s easy to imagine the din they create where they are. I’d describe it as a painting that moves.

This is Switzerland’s Bernese Oberland, a region that in summer draws walkers and hikers who come to enjoy some of the world’s most stunning landscapes. On a family trip there, we caught this landscape in summer sun for much of the time. Sunlight sets these mountains aglow.

The region is dominated by its three signature peaks: the Eiger, the Monch and the Jungfrau. Those ancient names mean “ogre,” “monk” and “young girl.” Whoever named them centuries ago placed the monk between the ogre and the young girl to protect her.

“The Bernese Oberland region is probably the best region in the country for seeing the scenery that is associated with Switzerland,” said Mirko Capodanno, manager, Central USA and Canada, for Switzerland Tourism. “For summer travel that includes mountains in snow, alpine meadows and flowers, and scenic hiking trails, this would be a region to consider. Also referred to commonly as the Jungfrau region, this area is very popular not only with the Swiss but with international visitors as well.”

Our home in Wengen was a beautiful mountainside retreat: the Beausite Park Hotel. Run by a charming couple, Margrit and Erich Leemann-von Allmen, this four-star hotel includes a Swiss breakfast buffet and an elegant five-course dinner each evening as part of your accommodations. When we arrived, the hotel sent a small car down to the station to pick up our luggage.

That was one of very few cars we saw during the week because Wengen is basically accessible by rail only. Cars are not allowed.

The train service in and out of Wengen was as punctual as it was picturesque. Most trains going down the mountain stop briefly in Lauterbrunnen (about a 15-minute trip) and then go on into Interlaken, where you can connect with any number of trains to other cities, like Bern, Geneva and Lucerne. Even a tiny village like Wengen has dozens of trains each day traveling through. In other words, in Switzerland, like most of Europe, train travel is part and parcel of enjoying your trip.

“The best thing about being a tourist in Switzerland is our SwissPass,” said Capodanno. “Today, it’s for so much more than just the trains. It may be used for trams, trolleys, many cruises on lakes, even our scenic trains like the Glacier Express. All these travel experiences are included as part of your pass. And now the SwissPass also includes entry into all our museums, like the Olympic Museum in Lausanne and the art museum in Basel. In total, about 450 museums are included.”

My family and I chose to vacation in Switzerland in summer for the same reason many others do — we’re walkers. Each day, we’d head into town and stop in the local grocery for a few items to put in our packs. We’d generally have cheese, bread, maybe some fruit and chocolate. Then we’d hop the train for our hiking destination. Or, we’d take the tram up the mountain directly above the hotel to Mannlichen. From there, it is a wonderful walk of a couple of hours across a high alpine ridge to Kleine Scheidegg. Kleine Scheidegg is little more than a train station that sits directly beneath the Eiger, the Monch and the Jungfrau. But there’s a lot going on there.

Another day, we took the train to Lauterbrunnen and caught the tram up to Murren, another charming mountain village that’s inaccessible by car. My wife, Kim, and I walked down from the village along the winding road that residents use. Lined by small farms, this walk was one of our best for enjoying herds of Swiss cattle, their cowbells punctuating an otherwise quiet descent.

Later in the week, we rode the Mannlichen tram over the mountain to Grindelwald, where my son Sam booked a tandem ride on a parasail out of First, high above Grindelwald. The next day, we returned for his 20-minute parasail adventure, which climbed and then coasted along the powerful mountain thermals.

Afterward, we began our most adventurous hike of all: down a steep, winding trail that was somewhat under repair. We left First and traversed this mountainside trail for a couple of miles. Our best views of the week of the three signature mountains were on this hike. They were framed against a bright blue sky and were mesmerizing.

We ended up at a remote alpine restaurant, where we had lunch — rosti, a dish consisting of potatoes and cheese topped with a fried egg. It’s one of several Swiss dishes Capodanno recommends visitors try.

“Swiss dishes I’d be sure to sample include fondue, which is often enjoyed in a group and is a dish that many Americans are familiar with,” said Capodanno, “or rosti, a dish consisting mainly of cheeses and potatoes, and raclette, another dish that consists of cheese carved from a heated block of cheese and served with potatoes. Raclette is often enjoyed with wine after you’ve been outside and worked up an appetite. It’s a very relaxing meal.”

Dinners at our hotel were formal but not stuffy. Many men wore jackets, and wines were served with several of the courses. Each evening featured something special, like a Swiss chocolate dessert buffet that was mind boggling or a Swiss cheese buffet that opened our eyes to the variety of cheeses produced in this country.

My family agreed that our most relaxing times of the week were all on outdoor terraces high in the Alps. My favorite was the train station at Kleine Scheidegg; this village is no more than the station itself. There is a rather bohemian-looking hotel there, but the action is at the station. When you get off the train, you simply walk around back and you’re on one of the most beautiful patios in the world.

Bright red and white Rugenbrau umbrellas cover lots of outdoor tables, and cooks grill bratwurst outdoors. You are there with hikers, climbers, families, a few dogs — an international crowd. Sitting on this terrace, you are directly beneath the Jungfrau. It towers thousands of feet above you in “eternal snow,” as Capadanno would say. You sit at one of these tables and have a brat — or maybe rosti — and you simply live in the moment. When it’s time to leave, it’s hard to get up, because you know in your heart you may never go anywhere else that makes you feel more alive.