A hiking couple share their secret: an ideal Swiss vacation spot. Accessible only by cable car, Riederalp still welcomes tourists
My wife and I love to hike in the Swiss Alps. Ten times over the past 20 years we've trekked through the Bernese Oberland, the Engadine, the Ticino, and many other Alpine areas of Switzerland. These regions offer networks of easy and rugged trails, well marked with yellow signposts for hikers like us - devoted but not necessarily accomplished. During all these years, we've been on the lookout for the perfect mountain village: away from the famous tourist centers where English seems to be Switzerland's fifth national language; accessible to both gentle, pastoral slopes for those initial ``warm-up'' days and high-altitude trails once we're in condition; close to a main artery of transportation so we can escape to the city if rain comes; and to a good hotel, a home to provide creature comforts after a hard day on the trail.
At last we think we've found one that comes close to our ideal.
We decided to make our pilgrimage to the Valais region in southern Switzerland, the broad valley of the Rh^one River noted for its dry, sunny weather. The Alps slope upward sharply from the valley floor, forming plateaus and side valleys that look out on the high peaks and the main valley below.
We knew it would be good hiking country.
My wife had amassed a small alp of maps, hotel guides, brochures, and timetables on the region, most of them from the Swiss National Tourist Office in New York City. This treasure house of information allowed us to select hotels, fix train schedules, design a variety of hikes, and even store away a few ideas for wet-weather days.
After a good bit of research, we (that's the editorial ``we'' - my wife did all the work) located Riederalp, a tiny village 5,000 feet above sea level on the northern slopes of the Rh^one Valley. Riederalp met our criteria. It was sufficiently remote, accessible only by cable car. No rail lines or roads led there. The hiking prospects were good.
Our highly detailed map showed dozens of Wanderwege, level trails mainly below the tree line, while neighboring peaks in the 6,000- to 9,000-foot range were laced with Bergwege, the higher, more rugged mountain trails that offer sweeping vistas.
If the rains came, we were less than an hour by cable car and local train from Brig, a main rail center in the valley. And the Swiss Hotel Guide gave the 35-bed Hotel Walliser Spycher a four-star rating, unusually high for a small hotel.
We spent nine days in Riederalp. The balcony of our spacious, well-appointed room at the Walliser Spycher looked out on the Matterhorn and the other Valaisian Alps.
The warm, informal atmosphere provided by proprietor Armin Berchtol contrasted nicely with these majestic surroundings. The demi-pension price for a double room included excellent five-course dinners prepared under the supervision of Frau Berchtol.
Herr Berchtol, a native of the region, was able to suggest many good hikes. One took us for nine hours through the beautiful and enormously varied terrain surrounding the village.
After a continental breakfast supplemented with Birchermuesli, a Swiss-style blend of grains and fruits, we rode the Mossfluh chairlift in sunny, 75-degree weather to the crest of a rocky, 7,000-foot-high ridge that separates the Rh^one Valley from the Aletsch Glacier, Europe's largest.
This river of ice - 500 feet thick at its origins and 100 feet thick even here - flows south from the high mountains of the canton of Bern for 30 miles until it dissipates below the Aletsch forest preserve behind Riederalp.
Leaving the lift station at 7,000 feet, we hiked along the ridgeline, paralleling the uphill slope of the glacier. Below us, winding through the white glacial surface like roadways, were dark ribbons of stones and soil heaved up by the slow but constant churning of ice and snow.
We hiked steadily for about two hours. Then the ridgeline rose sharply, and we left it and cut across the north face of the ridge, still at 7,000 feet, until an hour later we reached the edge of the glacier. Close at hand it was not so picturesque: the surface was scarred with deep ravines, and the snow, which had fallen months earlier, was dirty.
Now it was time to hike on another hour to our lunchtime destination, the Maerjelesee, a tiny lake in a pocket of the ridge, formed by the melting glacial snows. We had carried bread, cheese, apples, chocolate, and water in our backpacks. We ate by the lake next to small fields of white flowers still blooming in the harsh terrain at this late season.
Beyond the glacier we could see the Monch and the Eiger, 12,000-foot giants in the Bernese Alps, almost 30 miles away. A few Swiss were visiting the lake. We chatted with them, as far as our limited German allowed.
One had brought a very friendly dog, which seemed more interested in our lunch than in the scenery.
All too soon it was time to leave this idyllic scene and start back to Riederalp. Our route took us to the top of the ridge at 7,600 feet and then along its south face, offering us views of the green Rh^one Valley and the Valaisian Alps.
It was an interesting change from the starker glacial scenes. We were on a long downhill slope now, moving toward Riederalp's plateau with no chairlift to carry us down.
At Kuhboden, a cluster of houses at the edge of the plateau, a group of young men were launching their hang gliders into the void 4,000 feet above the valley. We stayed a little while to watch their triangular, primary-colored crafts ride the strong updrafts of warm air.
Another two hours along the plateau brought us to Riederalp at 6 in the evening, with time enough for a cold drink and short respite on our balcony before one of Frau Berchtol's excellent dinners.
As we think back on Riederalp, we remember that it did indeed measure up to our criteria, giving us a sense of seclusion, wonderfully varied hikes, and a comfortable hotel.
The rains never came, and so we never tested the escape route to Brig. That was one criterion we were happy to forgo.
Both the Geneva and Z"urich airports can be used as entry points for Riederalp. There is regular shuttle-bus service from the Geneva airport to the main railroad station.
A railroad station opened in June at the Geneva airport terminal. A good through train, which coordinates with incoming flights from New York, leaves Geneva at 9:45 in the morning and arrives in Brig at 12:17 in time for the 12:31 departure for M"orel.
Z"urich has a railroad station in its airport terminal. The fastest train route to Mo"rel is to Brig, with a change in between at Bern, the capital.
From M"orel there are cable-car departures to Riederalp about every 30 minutes.
The Swiss National Tourist Office and all Swiss railroad stations sell an official countrywide train guide for about $6. Regional editions are also available.
For more details call the Swiss National Tourist Office in New York: (212) 757-5944.