There's no more beautiful time to visit stunning Switzerland than in fall. Visitors who want to experience folkloric Swiss traditions as well as the stunning Alps they've seen in fairy tales, films and photographs throughout their lives go searching for the land of chocolate, cheese and tinkling cowbells. They find it in spades, and an autumn visit is a once-in-a-lifetime memory.
Somehow Switzerland - full of cutting-edge scientists, micro-technologists, architects and intellects - still protects its folkloric heritage and way of life as it has been for centuries. You just have to get out of the larger cities a bit to experience it. And fall is the perfect time to do so.
Mystical Cow Bell musician (and local school teacher), Ehrlenbach village, near Lake Thun — Photo courtesy of Sonja Holverson
Where can we find the ringing cow bells?
Although there are many areas in Switzerland to find the fairytale visions that a first time visitor may be imagining, an excellent region to first encounter the Swiss Alpine traditions and natural beauty is the Bernese Oberland Alps. It's a concentrated paradise of lakes, snow-capped Alps, villages, charming medieval towns and friendly people. This area will fulfill every dream of what one imagined Switzerland to be like. Yes, there are cheeses and chocolate and cow bells everywhere.
In the center of Alpine Switzerland, the Bernese Oberland region - especially around Lake Thun - is considered by some as the Earth’s spiritual energy center and by most everyone as one of the most beautiful scenic areas in the world. The most well-known town in the region, Interlaken which literally means between the lakes, is located between Lake Thun and Lake Brienz. Although Interlaken is lively and well situated, there are also some smaller towns in the region which are most delightful to stay in, and one can still easily go to Interlaken on a day trip as well as the nearby Lauterbrunnen Valley with views of the high Alps of the Jungfrau, Monch and the Eiger (of North Face fame).
Where can we stow the luggage?
One such small charming medieval town is Thun, known as the gateway to the Bernese Oberland since it is the first major stop on the train coming from Bern. Thun is located on the banks of the river Aare connecting by boat or rail to Lake Thun which is surrounded by magnificent Alps and green valleys. Here, there are many accommodations of all types to please everyone either in the Old Town center or on the slopes of a hill which is crowned by a perfectly intact medieval castle. A good base for exploration, the town center offers attractive pedestrian zones amongst the ancient buildings along the riverside with rustic covered wooden bridges. One can easily walk to the train station or to the boat landing.Thun Castle, Bernese Oberland — Photo courtesy of Sonja Holverson
Just a quick train ride further is the delightful hillside town of Spiez, located right on Lake Thun with the pyramid shaped Mt. Niesen towering nearby. This is another small authentic Swiss town which is a good base for discovering the diversity of the Bernese Oberland region and it has a variety of lodging available.
Presiding over the lake and the boat landing is the Spiez Castle built on the site of an early Romanesque castle church of the 10th century.Spiez Castle on Lake Thun — Photo courtesy of Sonja Holverson
What’s so great about Autumn in the Alps?
Autumn is an excellent time to visit Switzerland to avoid the crowds of summer visitors as well as the Swiss on their holidays. The children are back in school and the Swiss are reunited after their summer activities and ready to celebrate fall’s upcoming annual events. Some people think that the Alpine season is finished after the summer until winter skiing, but there are many traditional activities happening in the autumn and although changeable, the weather can be perfect for those brisk Alpine walks. If walking is too slow, there is also a series of Alpine high altitude running marathons (best in the cooler weather) in which the Swiss participate every autumn for different charities.
In addition to being cooler with an occasional ephemeral snowflake, it is oftentimes still very sunny and invigorating to be outdoors in the mountains or visiting villages and small towns with only locals out and about doing their Swiss things. The Alpine autumn weather is dramatically beautiful with scenic “cloudscapes” of all colors dancing through the Alps teasing the outdoor wanderers below.Frutigen village near Lake Thun, Bernese Oberland — Photo courtesy of Sonja Holverson
What if we don’t want to just hike around?
Every autumn, all over Switzerland, there is a regular annual pattern of events and festivals that constitute the Swiss way of living. Firstly, towards the beginning of September, the famous Black Nosed Swiss sheep that have been grazing wild in the high pastures of the Alps all summer long must return to the valley stables. Since the flocks have mixed, part of this festival is to separate the different owners’ sheep that have been herded into corrals and get them to their own stables. This is not easy to do with uncooperative sheep that may have bonded over the summer, but it’s most hysterical if all you have to do is watch.Swiss Black Nose sheep after summer grazing in the Alps, heading back to the stables — Photo courtesy of Dominique Schreckling
The descent of the sheep is followed later in the month of September by the cows that have also spent the summer in high Alpine pastures since June. At that time, they are paraded up the trails to the Alps by the herders called senn in German and armailli in French. This parade which is a combination of cows from different owners in the area is known as the poya or the inalpe in French. In September, they come back down also in procession which is then called the désalpe in French and alpabzug in German.
However, these relocations of the animal herds are not just practical due to seasons; they are time-honored customs that are a cause for celebration and result in some of Switzerland’s best authentic folkloric festivals.
The sheep have their designated “Queens” with colorful headdresses for their processions. Even more elaborately decorated, the cows and other animals, as well as the Swiss people who spent the summer in the upper pastures, return in a long walk back to their villages. The best milk-producing cows are adorned with the most beautiful floral headdresses. The antique horse carts carrying back the supplies are also decorated as they all parade back home through village after village.
At the destination village there will be décor, flags everywhere with typical (and serious) Swiss music and entertainment. There is never a shortage of accordionists, alphorn playing groups, brass bands, country orchestras, yodeling choirs and flag throwing teams.
The village center will abound with artisanal crafts (many with cow motifs), local culinary specialties to taste and to purchase. The aroma of Swiss typical sausages on the grill and cheese dishes is everywhere, as well as an abundance of Swiss beer and wine in order to welcome back friends and family who have been away for the four months working in the Alps.The Desalpe, returning from the Alpine pastures to the barns in the valleys — Photo courtesy of Sonja Holverson
What about the famous Swiss cheese that is made up in the Alps?
During the summer, the cow herders have been milking the cows. From this milk, they make the cheese in the Alpine chalets where they stay over the summers. There are hundreds of varieties of Swiss cheeses and every region, and even pastoral chalet, will be different.
The handmade Alpine pasture cheese comes down with the cows in the autumn parade. In some regions it is carried on the heads of men wearing specially decorated wooden supports and their typical costume for the event. Some cheese is brought down in the decorated old wooden wagons parading amongst the cows.
In the Canton of Bern and the Bernese Oberland, there is either a drawing for the division of the cheese amongst the cow herd owners or the owners’ names are imprinted directly on the cheese rounds made from their cows’ milk up in the pastures. It’s up to the cow herders to keep track of each owners’ production of milk.
Up above Lake Thun there is a tradition of dividing up the cheese which is called the Chästeilet. One village where this is a fascinating experience is Justistal. The amount of cheese that the cow owners receive is based on the amount of milk their cows produced. To make it fair for the owners to receive cheeses of different age and quality, the cheese rounds are mixed up in groups. Then the owners put their names on a piece of wood into a hat for a drawing.
In true Swiss tradition, the end of the summer is celebrated with music of the yodel choirs, alphorns and the Swiss accordionists.Handmade Alpine cheese in the summer pastures at Elsigenalp near Frutigen. Bernese Oberland — Photo courtesy of Sonja Holverson
What is this I hear about Swiss wine?
Many people are not aware that there are a lot of vineyards all over Switzerland, even using tiny spaces on steep hills and in valleys to grow grapes for some very delicious wines of many types. Chasseslas grapes for white wine are one of many types in Switzerland that are abundant. However, since the overall production of wine by small independent families is so limited, wine sales are handled collectively and sold locally to individuals, local stores and restaurants. It’s unusual to find Swiss wine outside of Switzerland - even in Europe.
Around the Spiez Castle on Lake Thun there are the vineyards of Pinot Noir grapes that have been there for centuries to make red wine, although there are also local white wines in the Bernese Oberland region.
Naturally, when the grapes are ready to be harvested in autumn, there is a Harvest Festival all over Switzerland called Läset-Sunntig in German and the Fête de Vendage in French. In the Bernese Oberland region, the only wine grower’s festival is in Spiez on the fourth Sunday of every September. Following an ecumenical religious service in the morning, the parade starts with many colorful floats, bands and local participants leading up to the festival party tents for the rest of the evening.Pinot Noir grapes, the type found on the shores of Lake Thun — Photo courtesy of Melinda
What other festivals are there in this region in the autumn?
The Ausschiesset, which is a tradition going back to the 16thcentury, is a festival to celebrate the end of the shooting club’s practices for the season. All capable Swiss men are conscripted into to the Swiss Army and take their turns training. Therefore, shooting practice is particularly important. This festival, however, is more symbolic of a historical event based on the capture of a court jester named Fulehung by the Thun soldiers during the Battle of Murten, a town located in the south in the Fribourg area in 1476.
The festival takes place in the town of Thun in mid-September each year with a parade of bands and a jester-costumed Fulehung character with a devil’s mask. This is all followed at the end by the city residents dancing down the streets into the evening.
What kind of sightseeing and outdoor activities are available in this Swiss Alpine region?
To get up into the Alps, most everything is possible for different levels of fitness and interest. The hiking trails are unlimited and there are various degrees of difficulty. In lieu of hiking, one can just take the cable cars and funiculars up to the higher points until about the first week or so in November when some stop operating and prepare for the winter season. Other Alpine high-altitude destination funiculars in the region are open all year.
Besides the train, the boats and the Alpine lifts, it is also possible to do some mountain biking or flatland cycling. There are many bike and hiking trail maps available for this at the various tourist offices in the region.Hiking above Kandersteg, Berner Oberland — Photo courtesy of Sonja Holverson
What are some of the nearby high peaks we could access in autumn?
Very close to Lake Thun is Mt Neisen, at 7,749 ft. (2,362 m) which is called the Swiss Pyramid (and you will see why). To get there, connect to a train or originate in Spiez and get off at Mülenen, just a short ride away. The funicular is right there and will take you to the top of Mt. Neisen (in 2 sections). In the viewing area, on a clear day, one can see the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau and even further. The restaurant Berghaus Niesen-Kulm is open from breakfast to dinner which sometimes includes a lovely sunset and even a full moon evening.
There are also many hiking trails up, down and all around this area. Be sure to have sturdy boots, high altitude hiking gear and a good map (do not depend on mobile phone signals).Cloudy View from the top of Mt. Niesen above Lake Thun — Photo courtesy of Sonja Holverson
Another excellent choice of Alps on which to stand is the top of the Stockhorn, at 7,185 ft (2,190m). It is reached easily by taking the regional train from Spiez to Erlenbach. It’s just a short, but steep walk from the train station up the hill to the village where the base of the cable car is located. It goes up to the top of the Stockhorn in two sections. The first section is a favorite with people fishing or hiking at the small lake there below the summit. The lifts operate until around the first week in November.Breathless on the top of the Stockhorn overlooking Lake Thun and the rest of Switzerland — Photo courtesy of Sonja Holverson
Aren’t there several UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Switzerland? Any in this region?
The closest designated site is just above Kandersteg, a small Alpine village resort only a short train ride away from Lake Thun. It’s a gorgeous spot which has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site called Lake Oeschinen at 5,177 ft (1,578 m).
You can ride up and down the cable car or ride up and hike down which is lovely, especially through the forests. The trail to Lake Oeschenin is easy and wide enough for vehicles to take physically challenged visitors to the lake and back to the cable car. The cable car to Lake Oeschenin is open in the autumn until the end of October.Lake Oeschine UNESCO World Heritage Site — Photo courtesy of Sonja Holverson
How can we get to see the Jungfrau, the Monch and the Eiger that we’ve heard so much about?
Although further away, it’s quite possible to visit this area on a day trip. Simply take the train to Interlaken Ost (there are 2 train stations in Interlaken) and connect to another train to Lauterbrunnen. It takes about 1 ½ hours. From there you can admire the astonishing view or go up one of the slopes of the valley for a view from higher up. Murren is a good viewpoint for the Jungfrau, Eiger and the Monch as well as much more. Small trains out of Lauterbrunnen to either Murren or Wengen on the other side of the valley run all year.Jungfrau. Bernese Oberland — Photo courtesy of Dominique Schreckling
Will the boats be operating on Lake Thun in the autumn?
In fact, there are boats all year round and some locals use them to get places instead of going all around the lake. There are departures from the town of Thun on the river Aare to Lake Thun stopping in Spiez by the castle and continuing around various ports of villages all the way to Interlaken. Various itineraries are possible. There is a schedule change to watch for towards the end of October each year.Cruising on Lake Thun — Photo courtesy of Sonja Holverson
How do we get to the Lake Thun area from the airports in Switzerland?
Both the Geneva and Zurich airports have train stations right in the terminal and you can board a train that will take you directly to the towns of Thun or Spiez. Depending on the time of day, it may be faster to change trains in Bern. From Geneva airport it is about 2 ½ hours, and from Zurich airport it is about 2 hours depending on whether a change in Bern is involved.
Where is a good place to stay?
Hotels in smaller towns like Spiez and Thun are overall less expensive and more authentically Swiss than some in larger cities. There are all price ranges and different amenities available according to your needs and lifestyle. These are just a few of many and the rates will be lower in the autumn:
Krone Hotel-Restaurant, 4 stars
Obere Hauptgasse 2, Rathausplatz, Thun 3600, Switzerland
Just below the Thun castle and in the Old Town near the Rathaus (city hall) and close to the Aare River. Can be reached by foot or public transportation from the train station and boat landing.
Freienhof Swiss Quality Hotel, 4 stars
3600 Thun, Switzerland
Central location, but away from the traffic right along the banks for the Aare River.
Hotel Emmental, 3 stars
Bernstrasse 2, Thun, Switzerland
Charming Alpine-style architecture dates back to 1898 in the central Old Town. Ten-minute walk from the Train Station. Overlooks the Thun Castle.
Daisy's Bed and Breakfast
Magnoliastrasse 6, 3600 Thun, Switzerland
Quiet residential district above the Old Town. Views of the castle. Shared bathroom facilities with one other room.
Strandhotel Belvédère, 4 star superior
Schachenstrasse 39, 3700 Spiez, Switzerland
Situated right on the shore of Lake Thun, this luxury hotel includes a spa, private beach and gastronomic restaurant with a 15 point Gault Millau rating.
Hotel-Restaurant Seegarten - Marina, 3 stars
Schachenstrasse 3, 3700 Spiez, Switzerland
Right next to the most impressive castle of Speiz and the boat landing for Lake Thun. Terrace restaurant.
Gästehaus Seeblick (Guest house)
Schachenstrasse 43, 3700 Spiez, Switzerland
Contemporary architecture and interior design with lots of light and viewpoints of the lake and surrounding mountains. Just a 5-minute walk down to the lake shore and 10-minute walk to the Spiez Train Station.
For either town or anywhere in Switzerland, there is an excellent service called Bed and Breakfast Switzerland that can connect you to private Swiss homes which is an enjoyable way to ensure that you will have an authentic Swiss first experience.
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