Retreat to Switzerland

PERSONAL JOURNEYS

A Memorable Place

June 27, 1999|By KENNETH WILLAMAN | KENNETH WILLAMAN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

We need to "get away" as much as "arrive at." We need a break from the boss, ringing phones, e-mail, the daily grind, and once a year we search for the perfect place that will, if even for a short time, provide refuge.

I have found my ideal retreat in the mountains, the Berner Oberland in the Swiss Alps. Superlatives abound: breathtaking, awesome, overwhelming, spiritual.

My favorite village is Wengen. The tiny town is placed on a plateau with views of Switzerland's three most famous peaks: Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau. It is free of cars, charming without being cute, accommodating to tourists while preserving an authentic character.

Access to Wengen is by cog train from Lauterbrunnen. With its many switchbacks, the route rises slowly with views unfolding scene by gorgeous scene. From the quaint station, it's an easy walk to hotels in this one-street village.

Soon, the Jungfrau casts its spell. At 13,642 feet, it is Switzerland's highest peak. In the morning, it's there. Through the day, it's always over your shoulder. In moonlight, its form is dramatically visible, a palpable presence.

There are many hiking trails in the area, the best being the level walk at the Klein Scheidegg. This two-hour trek through pastures swings around in a great arch as the valley drops away with Grindlewald far in the distance. It passes in front of the Eiger's north face.

The hike back to Wengen goes through more meadows and then passes the tree line into lush larch forests. Nearer the village are the gardens around the chalets. Dahlias are five feet high, begonia blossoms eight inches across and window-box geraniums tumble as gigantic clusters. I'm told the secret is cool nights.

After a day of hiking, the senses are swirling and enjoyed in reflection. Before dinner, I treated myself to a libation on my balcony. I was lucky and the weather was just right (humidity low, air pressure high) and I witnessed a transcendental experience: the famous Jungfrau sunset.

As the sun got lower, only the peak was lighted, first with the expected gold color. But in the next five minutes, the color progressed from pink to the most improbable deep rose, then an impossible violet darkening to purple before this mountain, which by now I claimed as my own, called it a day and submitted to the night.

I wondered, "Did I truly see what I just saw?" I pinched my arm and uttered an affirming ouch.

Kenneth Willaman lives in Baltimore.

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