Sue Bathersby

Hills are alive with silence

I WILL always remember my first hours in the Swiss Alps.

It had been a long day – a 24-hour flight from Brisbane to Zurich followed by four hours on trains to get to Lauterbrunnen, nestled in a magnificent valley at the foot of the Swiss Alps.

From there, a spectacular and somewhat terrifying cable car ride took us hundreds of metres up a vertical cliff face to our destination: the picturesque village of Murren.

It was twilight when we stepped off the gondola in Murren and for a few minutes, we thought we had arrived in the twilight zone.

The half-dozen locals who had made the trip up the cliff with us quickly disappeared into the gathering twilight and we were left to wander along the main street of a village that appeared abandoned.

“Back in June” said the sign on the bakery window. It was early May, so there was obviously no point waiting for fresh bread.

The gift shop and small grocery store also had the look of places that weren't about to reopen for a while.

We knew Murren was a car-free village but the total absence of vehicles still came as a shock.

As we walked along the main street, with the alps looming above us on all sides, the only sound was our footsteps in the gravel.

We stopped to admire the view and appreciate the silence – pure silence that would have bordered on unnatural if it hadn't been so, well, so natural.

We found ourselves talking in whispers, partly out a reverence for the surroundings and partly because we didn't need to talk any louder in order to hear each other.

We walked past typical alpine lodges with their steep roofs and quirky Swiss decorative touches, large hotels barricaded for the winter and even a small herd of mountain goats (or were they deer?) which had clambered over the top of the cliff and were happily grazing in the main street.

It was slightly spooky but we soon found our guesthouse, complete with a public bar, restaurant and signs of human habitation.

It was, the staff told us, “off season” in the alps. The skiers who invade the village in winter had gone and the wildflowers which draw crowds in spring were still weeks away from blooming.

Most of the village's permanent population of 400 had gone on their annual holiday, leaving a handful of guest houses to handle off-season visitors.

It was, we soon discovered, a perfect time to visit because, for four days, we shared a picturesque alpine village with a skeleton staff of locals and maybe 40 fellow tourists.

We spent hours wandering through the town without seeing or hearing another soul.

It gave new meaning to the term “peaceful”.

At any time of year, Murren is an ideal base from which to explore the Swiss Alps.

Literally perched on the edge of a cliff, the mountains seem to loom above you on all sides with the clear mountain air making them seem so close, you feel you could reach out and touch them.

A series of cable cars that dangle over terrifying precipes and trains, which hug the sides of mountains before, quite literally, disappearing into tunnels carved through the centre of them, take visitors to some of the region's most amazing sites.

From Murren, it's a spectacular cable car ride up to Schilthorn and the famous Piz Gloria revolving restaurant where scenes of the James Bond film On His Majesty's Secret Service were shot during the 1960s.

We may have been there in early spring but the cable car had barely left Murren before we were travelling above snow-covered fields and by the time we reached the peak, we were in the heart of the alps, with views of 200 snow-capped mountain summits and 40 glaciers.

The next day, we took another cable car back down to Lauterbrunnen, on the floor of the valley, and from there, a train took us on a two-hour trek over and even through the alps to the Jungfrau, which claims the title of “the top of Europe”.

The train travels though tunnels carved into the heart of the alps before finally depositing you at the highest train station in Europe (3454 metres above sea level) where you can enjoy unbelievable views of the mountain giants Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau and of the longest rivers of ice in the alps.

If the weather is good, as it was for us, you can even walk out on the glacier, which is an experience you won't forget in a hurry.

There's plenty of snow on the high mountains in autumn but also plenty of walking trails and green fields to wander through, with the alps providing a spectacular backdrop.

One of the highlights of our visit was leaving the electric train on the way down from the Jungfrau and spending four hours following a mountain path that wound its way down the valley, through green fields, across bubbling mountain streams and past mountain chalets.

From the moment we rounded the first bend in the trail to our arrival in another picture-perfect village, this time Wengen, four hours later, we may have been the only people alive.

Once again we found ourselves talking in whispers and enjoying the absolute silence.

Already we are craving the return visit when we plan to walk alpine trails, marvel at the majesty of the alps and stop often to enjoy the absolute peace of the mountains … not to mention talking in whispers.

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