Mike MacEacheran | JRR Tolkien’s Switzerland, BBC Travel
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JRR Tolkien’s Switzerland, BBC Travel

No one in Zurich will believe you are going to Middle Earth. Most visitors arrive at Kloten Airport ready for shopping on Bahnhofstrasse and sightseeing in the Niederdorf old town, or use it as a jumping-off point to explore the resorts of St Moritz, Klosters or Davos. But head southwest – past the misty mountains and jagged peaks that tower over Luzern and the lake town of Interlaken – and up the deeply cloven valley that twists and winds from Lake Thun into the heart of the Bernese Oberland and with a little imagination you could find yourself staring into the verdant Elvish valley of Rivendell or in the midst of a Hobbit walking party.

That’s because the steep-sided cliffs, jagged Alpine peaks, glacial grottoes and fertile dells of forests and wild flowers, were the inspiration for JRR Tolkien’s Middle Earth sagas, The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. Naturally, the stunning Alpine villages of Lauterbrunnen, Grindelwald and Wengen – and the soaring Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau peaks that guard them – are not some sort of hidden secret. Travellers have been exploring these valleys since the Berner Oberland Bahn railway opened in July 1890. But their role in the creation of JRR Tolkien’s fantastical Middle Earth epic pretty much is – at least to everyone apart from Tolkien scholars. The author acknowledged as much back in the 1950s in a little-known letter to his son, Michael. “From Rivendell to the other side of the Misty Mountains,” he wrote, “the journey… including the glissade down the slithering stones into the pine woods… is based on my adventures in Switzerland in 1911.”

In the popular imagination, New Zealand has become the home of dwarves, elves, dragons and four-foot tall hairy-footed Hobbit burglars. Movie director Sir Peter Jackson used his homeland as the backdrop for his version of Middle Earth in the Academy-Award winning film series – the final instalment of which, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, is released in December. But as far as JRR Tolkien was concerned, it was Switzerland that was the real deal.

Traversing the Bernese Oberland with his younger brother Hilary on a summer holiday after leaving school in Birmingham, the experience had a profound effect on the 19-year-old author-to-be. Some 57 years later he wistfully remembered the regret at leaving the eternal snows of the Jungfrau and the sharp outline of the pyramid-shaped Silberhorn peak against the dark blue of the sky behind him. They were “the Silvertine of my dreams,” he said, referencing one of the peaks that stood above the Dwarven city of Moria in the Lord of the Rings

It’s only one example of fact blurred with fiction. For fans of the fantasy series, it’s easy to shadow Bilbo and Frodo Baggins’s footsteps by retracing Tolkien’s journey from Interlaken (seen by scholars as inspiration for Esgaroth, or Lake-Town in The Hobbit) to Lauterbrunnen and the moraines beyond Mürren (see Mount Doom in the final part of the Rings’ trilogy) by virtue of Switzerland’s ultra-efficient train network. 

The hybrid aerial cableway and railway Bergbahn Lauterbrunnen-Mürren brings hikers up to the car-free village of Mürren and its rotating mountain restaurant, Piz Gloria, atop the 2,970m Shilthorn – where George Lazenby’s James Bond battled Telly Savalas’ Blofeld in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Alternatively, the Wengernalpbahn shuttles visitors up the opposite side of the valley to Kleine Scheidegg for views of the notorious North Face of the Eiger – one of hardest professional climbs in the Alps – before connecting to the Jungfraubahn. Tackling a steep 25 per cent gradient, the cogwheel train tunnels its way up through the mountain, past viewing galleries glazed into the side of the peak, to the Jungfraujoch – a narrow col below the Jungfrau itself, on which is built the Sphinx, a three-storey astronomical observation station. At 3,741m, it’s the highest viewing platform and rail station in Europe, and the eagle-eye views of the Bernese Alps let you chart the next stage of Tolkien’s cross-country journey.

Tolkien’s trip next took him across a number of high altitude mountain passes. His party of 12 crossed from Grosse Scheidegg to Meiringen, famous for the nearby Reichenbach Falls, used by one of Tolkien’s literary predecessors, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, as the setting for the fictional presumed death of his deer-stalker wearing sleuth Sherlock Holmes in The Final Problem. Finally, Tolkien continued across the 2,165m Grimsel Pass and through upper Valais to Brig, before crossing the Aletsch glacier, the largest in the Alps, into the popular mountain resort of Zermatt

The Gornergrat, the country’s oldest electrified rack-and-pinion line, runs from here to Rotenboden, where you can see Switzerland’s most famous peak, the dagger-like spike of the Matterhorn, mirrored in the transparent waters of the Riffelsee. Like Tolkien, another writer with their head in the clouds was Mark Twain – he visited back in 1878. At the end of the tracks is the country’s highest hotel, 3100 Kulmhotel Gornergrat, surrounded by 29 peaks – a view as spectacular as anything Tolkien himself dreamt up. 

Diehard fans can continue their journey through Middle Earth by heading cross-country to the canton of Graubunden – a part of Switzerland that Tolkien never actually visited. There are not many places that have capitalised on the Swiss-Middle Earth connection, but the unlikely village of Jenins is one such place. 

Opened last October and built in the style of Bag-end, Bilbo’s house in Hobbiton, the Greisinger Museum houses the world’s biggest collection of Middle Earth-themed art, literature and collectibles. Its founder, Bernd Greisinger, has spent decades collecting some 3,000 items, including the most valuable Tolkien manuscripts and paintings and each exhibition room, some of which are still under construction, is dedicated to a different chapter in the Tolkien universe. After entering through the Hobbit-sized solid-oak door into the living room and library – built to replicate the minute descriptions of the fireplace, oak-fashioned windows and neck-craning ceiling in Tolkien’s books – you can explore rooms themed around the realms of Middle Earth, such as Moria and Gondor. 

It’s as authentic a homage as any fan could wish for – including items such as a life-size Balrog, a creature from the underworld from the Lord of the Rings, and a sculpture of The Hobbit’s Smaug, the talking dragon, as he flies under a sky full of stars. In the words of Tolkien, now that’s a real unexpected journey.