A tour through the Bernese Oberland on foot and by rail
The Swiss, more often taught Latin than Americans are, might refer to their country as multum in parvo - much in little. Every hillock has a history, and every district its subdialect. A well-traveled region like the Bernese Oberland seems minute to the first-time visitor, but get close - down on the ground, on foot - and its enormous variety is quickly evident.
The Bernese Oberland is that region at the base of the Alps, all of it south of Interlaken, well below not only Bern but the twin lakes of Thun and Brienz. It stretches from the environs of Gstaad in the west to Grindelwald in the east. But the Swiss have the world's densest train network and one of its best telephone systems. In addition, they apply such meticulous organization to tourism that we can move in a wide circle around central Switzerland - walking around Bern, staying in country inns - and not worry much about district borders.
Even though the Swiss invented hotel-keeping (Cesar Ritz was not Parisian, but Swiss), choose for a walking tour the small places away from the big-city hostelries. Reservations can be made sometimes from the States, and always - without charge - through the tourist offices in or near the train station in every town and village. Stop in a bookstore (the Swiss love theirs, and they are excellent) for a handful of the yellow-bordered ''Wanderkarte'' (literally, ''maps for walking around'') from specialist geographic publishers Kummerly & Frey. These are exquisite hikers' maps drawn to a scale of 1:50,000 - brilliant pieces of cozy cartography that reproduce virtually every house, cows' watering trough, and farmhouse along the route. Bring along, or buy at a better price over there, a pair of good walking shoes; they need not be professional mountaineering gear by any means, although ankle height helps. And perhaps a stick for show - and you are ready.
Bern makes a good base, easy to reach by hourly express trains from both Geneva and Zurich (the two international airports). This elegant capital with a thousand-year history boasts perfectly restored, arcaded streets housing first-class stores, perched grandly on a bluff high in an elbow of the River Aare. At its center, the clock tower (the ''Zytglogge'') has just been meticulously restored. In sharp but congenial contrast with the Old World charm of the city's architectural fabric, the train station is of modern vintage, identified by signs in three languages - Bahnhof, Gare, and Stazione. It works beautifully, with easy and efficient connections to the countryside in all directions.
For a first night's lodging, I suggest seeking out the village of Worb. Find the platforms where the blue or orange local trains stop, and ride through lush countryside for 20 minutes to Worb. (Get off at Dorf, not the nearby stop, Worb SBB.)
A minute away, and just opposite the Dorf station, is the Gashof Lowen (telephone 031/83-23-03; or in the United States, toll-free, 800-826-0015). It is a farmer's giant house converted to a 10-room country inn, perfectly combining thick walls, local antiques, and every modern convenience. The Lowen, in the same family for 10 generations (something common in the world of Swiss inns), is warmly managed with enormous personal care by Hans Peter and Ursula Bernhard.
The next day, rent a bicycle at the rail station for a few dollars (three-speed, well maintained by the national railroads), and miles of neatly asphalted paths open up at the end of any street of the village. You can even put your bicycle on the commuter train into Bern and get off at the city's edge.
For those who want to enter the Swiss picture-post-card landscape on foot, I suggest retracing the short ride from Worb back into Bern station. Settle into an immaculate and punctual train and head for Schwarzenburg, a village technically in the Bernese Mittelland, and actually almost too lovely to be true. It is a representative place to start walking.
The farmhouses are in excellent condition, having been treasured for generations. Inscriptions calling blessings on the inhabitants are carved on facades that have been lovingly maintained for a few hundred years; their dark wood seems burnished. Balconies are carved in folk designs, and geraniums literally cascade around overhanging roofs covered with shingles, a decorative touch dating from the 17th century.
Schwarzenburg is the village where I found this beautiful walk, but trails like this one are everywhere in the Oberland and its environs. You can virtually choose a train, going out from Bern, get off at a small town, and follow the yellow-painted signposts with direction markers to find much the same. It is hard to go wrong, almost impossible to be disappointed.
These yellow signposts are crucial. They are set out, as paths are cleared and maintained, by regional hiking clubs, volunteer groups dedicated to the joys of the Wanderweg, or foot-wandering. The signs - and I never saw one faded or peeling - indicate alternative routes, distance in kilometers, and the expected walking time it should take to get there at a normal strolling pace.
Connect these easy-to-read and easy-to-find signposts with the wandering map, and a network of hundreds of miles opens up. A series of handbooks from Kummerly & Frey sets out routes: some flat, some all at high altitudes, some mixing highlands and lowlands as the Oberland so perfectly does. The itinerary has been calculated to offer the walker maximum interest. In an hour's walk, I almost always passed through meadowland, a bit of forest, some climbing, some descents.
A stroll from the town of Brienz, on one of the two lakes astride Interlaken (the place ''between the lakes'' of its name), gave this sampler: a gravel path through deciduous woods, then a low-grade descent along beaten earth cut between hayfields, a route skirting a stream, and arrival at the vineyards that run down to a lake's edge. A sign at the end of the Wanderweg path indicated that a quarter-hour's stroll would take this hiker to the boat landing, where a steamer pauses to collect passengers returning to shoreline towns.
Before leaving for Switzerland, buy a Swiss Holiday Card - a train travel pass available for 4, 8, 15, or 30 days of unlimited first- or second-class travel. The card is available from any Swiss National Tourist Office (New York, Chicago, San Francisco) and at rates of $90 in first class ($61 in second); $108 (or $74); $137 (or $93); and $190 (or $129). It is one of the remaining real bargains of European tourism. The Holiday Card is also accepted on the lake steamers and the national postal buses.
After you've explored this region by foot, head for the heart of Swiss tourism - the area around Interlaken, the most visited of Swiss places. You can stay in the bustling town of Interlaken, a tourist spot since before there was skiing. Or, for variety, you can try the luxurious five-star Victoria Jungfrau Grand Hotel (036-21-2171), where during the ''low season'' from November to April a double runs $70 to $90, and in the summer months $100 to $145. Not the Swiss idea of a country inn, by any means, the hotel looks right at the spectacular Jungfrau peak, offering such unrustic amenities as indoor tennis courts, swimming pool, and nightclub.
I suggest, as an alternative to this style and location, an inn at Wilderswil , a real ''find.'' Minutes away by car, bus, or train from Interlaken, this very tranquil village is concerned with the life cycle of cows and the making of mountain cheese more than tourism. Similar to famous, crowded, and much discovered Interlaken, Wilderswil sits at the gateway to the waterfalls of Lauterbrunner and to the mountaintop villages of Wengen and Murren.
At the main crossroads of the village is the Hotel Baren (telephone 036/22-35 -21), a rambling chalet-inn run by the Zurschmiede family. It is a place that knows nothing of tour groups traveling by bus. Bookings made during February are priced for the summer months of June, July, and August at $33, for double room with bath or shower, a few dollars less for May and September. That price includes breakfast and dinner, for stays of seven nights or more. Passing seven days around Wilderswil is easy: Take the gondola to the top of the Schilthorn (about 10,000 feet), and as long as you are here, follow the crowds to the Monch , Jungfrau, and the Eiger.
Again, the Wanderweg system has gone ahead. For every advanced path, there are dozens cutting across splendid flatlands as easy to navigate as a department store aisle.
A final point about Bernese Oberland walking: Think in layers. Instead of a heavy sweater that is appropriate only for cooler, high altitudes, wear a shirt and a thin sweater that is easy to carry when you warm up. Instead of thick ski-type socks, wear two pairs of thin ones. That way they rub together and absorb friction that otherwise is passed straight through to unprepared soft heels and toes.