Wednesday, December 20, 2006

TRAVEL: Kandersteg


Paul Stump is dizzied by Kandersteg's sights and heights

The smart blue and white Lotschberg train begins to climb. The line rises 800m in a little over 20km, doubling back on itself twice. It heaves its way through tunnels of unlined rock, along giddying ledges, before the floor of the Kander valley rises abruptly and we're pulling into Kandersteg.

As a kid I read the railway writer Cecil J Allen's enthralling accounts of travel in Switzerland. The Lotschberg main line between Bern and Milan was a favourite, and the above is a paraphrase of one of CJ's accounts.

The Romantics made this part of the Bernese Oberland into the tourist destination it is today and Kanderstef has few rivals in showing why. The scenery would exhaust the most thorough of thesauri. The trinity of the Balmhorn (3701m), Altels (3699m) and the wondrous snow-sugared Blumlisalp (3663m) dominate, but other peaks, crags and precipices of breathtaking scale surround the village.

For those eminently sensible souls who find the acquisition, donning and wearing of skis and their various attendant accoutrements a bit of a pain in the old behind, Kandersteg is nearly perfect. You CAN ski here, but as long as you do it at a discreet distance from the village. Mostly the place is devoted to langlauf and walking, and as such is spared the blight of yoof that disfigures so many Alpine resorts. You won't find a Mulligan's bar in Kandersteg. Posters advertising 'Der Snowboard-Party' are rare. The word 'DJ' is almost unknown.

Sounds stuffy? Wrong. Kandersteg still has working dairy farms and a sawmill. Not everyone earns their money waiting on townies in ghastly psychedelic artifical fibres. Sounds expensive? Wrong again, chum. Kandersteg, by the standards of the Oberland, is reasonably priced.

The 50km of Wanderwege, or hiking paths, are mapped and signposted with meticulopus attention to detail (this IS Switzerland, after all). Kandersteg tends to get a lot of snow, and as such the network is somewhat attenuated in winter. For instance, the long-distance footpaths over the high passes into the Valais region to the south are closed as is, alas, the path along the Lotschberg-Nordrampe path created by the BLS/SBB, tracing the spectacular line on its ascent to the summit. This thing of wonder, usually placed within a few metres of the metals, is one of the wonders of the trainspotter's world; this is not opinion, it is verifiable fact.

But wonders are attainable even in winter. The Oeschinensee is a 400 metre climb to the east of the village; lying below the tumbing cliffs of the bewitching Blumlisalip, one almost wills water-sprites and other Germanic folk figurtes to attend its shores. There's a helter-skelter toboggan run down from here to the cillage for those with strong stomachs and/or a pathological death-wish.

Byron wrote Manfred in these parts and the soaring eagles, sheer rock faces and raging torrents in the impressive defiles around Kandersteg lead one to believe that the poet at least passed through. A walk south from the village brings one to a 1000-metre wall of rock; the railway line plunges into the legendary 14-km Lotschberg Tunnel, and the only way up and over is via a tiny road hewn into the cliffs, unlit tunnels and all, bringing the hiker into the gorge of the upper Kander. Looking up cricks your neck, looking down turns your stomach. But this is the only access to the Gasterntal, a place of almost supernatural beauty and silence. There is not a sound anywhere; even footfalls sound indecent. If the hereafter has a sound, this may be it. Even Byron couldn't describe it adequately, so I am not gonna try.

Accommodation in Kandersteg is plentiful. The Hotel Zur Post (0041/33.675.12.58) is central, and with shower-equipped double rooms with B&B from 80 euros, offers a coy and cheerful hearth. Visit for other options.

Food is... well, Swiss. Served in abundant portions and still the same unsophisticated, calorific, hearty fare of cheese and fatty meats required to sustain mountain folk, it's an acquired taste, and the station buffet is as good a place as any.

The BLS Lotschberg line is, of course, one of the jewels in the glittering crown of Swiss railway achievement, not to mention one of the most stupendous civil engineering feats in Europe. The tunnel, completed in 1912, is an epic in itself. In 1906, excavators hit water-bearing rock under the Gasterntal and the infant Kander; 25 men and much machinery were swept away. The detritus was walled up in the mountain and the tunnel took a bizarre detour to reach Goppenstein in the Valais, from whence the line descends to Brig and then on through the even longer Simplon Tunnel to reach Italy. Car-carrying shuttles run through the Tunnel, and in summer take motorists all the way from Kandersteg to Iselle on the southern side of the Simplon.

The superhuman efforts of the Lotschberg engineers in this amazing place are perhaps the most eloquent tribute to the mammoth assetion of nature in this mountain byway. Their achievement beggars imagination - but not as much as when one looks up to those ethereal fastnesses above 3600m. Kandersteg is a place that offers humblebness - and through it, fulfilment.

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