|Interlaken : In and around the town|
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The town itself is only of passing interest, with precious little to see or do other than a couple of hours of exploratory wanderings, either on foot or from the back of one of the horse-drawn carriages which ply for business outside West station. The large grassy parkland of the Höhematte in the centre of town was where the monks of Interlaken’s ancient Augustinian monastery pastured their cattle – on the east side of the park is the Schloss, dating from 1747 but incorporating some of the fifteenth-century monastical buildings. Parts of the Gothic church survive in the renovated Schlosskirche adjacent, which has also clung onto its old cloister, each window of which, curiously, is of a different design.
Otherwise, you’re just as well served by strolling along the Aare beneath the looming cliffs west into pretty Unterseen, adjoining Interlaken north of West station. This atmospheric village houses some of the area’s oldest buildings, and the square in front of the Amtshaus off Untere Gasse is particularly picturesque.
Interlaken starts to reveal its secrets when you explore further afield. Before you even venture into the mountains, there are three viewpoints above the town to enjoy, all of them laced around with hiking trails galore. A funicular (May–Oct) rises from behind Ost station through the woods to the Harderkulm (1310m), offering vistas over the town, both lakes and a panorama of snowy peaks close enough to touch. Friday evening sees folk music and dancing at the summit restaurant, with special late trains laid on; book through the tourist office. On the other side of town, some 500m south of West station, is the vintage red funicular (May–Oct) serving the Heimwehfluh (669m), a more touristic venture, with the summit often crowded with parents taking the kids round the model-train exhibition and the miniature bob-run.
The best excursion from Interlaken, though, is the breathtaking Schynige Platte (2000m), acclaimed as offering one of the best views in the entire Alps. The peaceful village of Wilderswil is a few kilometres south of Interlaken, reachable by train (from Ost station) or bus #5 from West station; an attractive little place, full of traditional wooden houses, it serves as the base station for a cog-wheel train winding up for almost an hour to Schynige Platte (Fr.32 one way, Fr.54 return; Eurail and Swiss Pass 25 percent discount, InterRail not valid; late-May to mid-Oct only). Trails lead out in all directions from the top station – including a two-hour panorama route circling the summit – or you can just relax with a short stroll around the Alpine Botanical Gardens (Fr.3), filled with luscious examples of the local flora, and one of the few places where you can be guaranteed to see a genuine living edelweiss. Every Wednesday in July and August, trains depart Wilderswil at 5.40am to catch the sunrise, with the optional extra of breakfast at the summit hotel (Fr.15).
One of the most attractive walks in the whole Oberland region is from Schynige Platte along the crest to the Faulhorn (2681m), on to First and then down to Grindelwald (roughly 6hr). This is worth doing at any time, but if you’re around in July and August, grab the unique opportunity to walk the route by moonlight: on the two Saturday nights with the fullest moon, trains leave Interlaken Ost at 10.30pm, bringing you to Schynige Platte by midnight, from where a local guide leads you along the six-hour trail. Ask the Interlaken tourist office for more details.
St Beatus Höhlen
Beatus himself reputedly came from Britain. The story goes that having given all his wealth to the poor to follow Christ, he was baptized in Rome by St Peter and sent with a companion, Justus, into the Alps as the first apostle to the heathen Helvetians. (In all probability, though, Beatus was one of the Irish followers of St Columba who brought Christianity to Switzerland in the sixth century.) When Beatus and Justus came to the lake, local people told them of a terrible dragon who occupied a cave overlooking the water. Beatus climbed up to the cave alone, and when the dragon emerged, raised his cross and spoke the name of the Holy Trinity, thereby sending the monster over the cliff edge into the water below. Beatus took over its cave, praying and working miracles until his death at the age of 90. A cult of pilgrimage rapidly grew up around him and the cave, which, after being walled up during the Reformation, was restored for public visits in the nineteenth century.
Today, you can visit only on guided tours, which depart every half-hour (April–Oct daily 10.30am–5pm; Fr.14; duration 50min) from the ticket office a short climb above the lakeside road. Note that a visit involves a full 2km walk through the caves (1km each way), which are chilly year-round. You can leave bags at the ticket desk for Fr.1. The guides lead you past the grotto where Beatus reputedly passed his days, and then on into the cool gloom of the cave interior, filled with the noise of rushing underground streams – the best time to visit is springtime, when a wet winter and snowmelt conspire to shoot torrents of water through the tortuous corkscrewing channels.
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