ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY explore Thun, one of the most beautiful medieval towns in Switzerland and the gateway to the scenic Bernese Oberland
Switzerland… the very name invokes images of romantic holidays in cozy wooden chalets and ski resorts, wildflowers bobbing in alpine meadows, warm fondue and raclette on wintry evenings and cows grazing in idyllic pastures, their bells tinkling softly, as farm fresh milk is crafted into fine chocolate and 450 varieties of cheese.
For years, Switzerland has been the gold standard for what a mountain destination should be, with hill stations around the world claiming the epithet ‘The Switzerland of ___’. Only when you visit Switzerland do you realize that every cliché – picture postcard homes, snowy peaks and placid lakes the colour of copper sulphate – is actually true…
It’s not hard to see why artists, poets and writers have always been enchanted by Switzerland. Johanna Spyri set the tales of Heidi in the Swiss countryside. The glaciers, lakes and mountains inspired Swiss painters like Caspar Wolf, Ferdinanad Hodler and Giovanni Giacometti, poet Lord Byron and writers like Mark Twain. Composer Goethe wrote his poem “Song of the Spirits over the waters” after seeing the Staubbach Falls in 1779 while JRR Tolkein based his Lord of the Rings saga of ‘Rivendell’ after a trip to Lauterbrunnen Valley.
India’s love affair with Switzerland is largely credited to director Yash Chopra who spent his honeymoon there in 1970. Captivated by the heavenly natural beauty, he featured the Swiss meadows and mountains for the first time in his 1985 film Faasle. The saga continued with his 1989 film Chandni and DDLJ in 1995. Millions were captivated by the landscapes, cobbled streets and pretty bridges of the Swiss countryside, a signature backdrop for Yash Raj Films. Lauenensee, a lake in Canton Bern that served as a prominent locale, was dubbed ‘Yash Chopra Lake’.
For promoting Brand Switzerland, Chopra was given the honorary title ‘Ambassador of Interlaken’ on 8 April 2011 and in May 2016, a bronze statue was installed off Interlaken’s main street Hoheweg near Casino Kursal with a silver plaque dedicated to him. Jungfrau Railways named a train after him; the only other person to share this honour is the man who founded Jungfraubahn railway, Adolf Guyer-Zeller himself (Train 211)! The Victoria Jungfrau hotel in Interlaken has a special deluxe cinema-themed suite named after him (CHF 2250) decorated with Veer Zaara posters.
While Jungfraujoch continues to be the top Swiss destination, there are several pretty nooks overlooked by most vacationers. One such place is the medieval town of Thun. Located on the western edge of Thunersee (Lake Thun) where the Aare river flows out, it was the traditional gateway to the Bernese Alps. With the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau gleaming with eternal snow across the lake, the picturesque town is crisscrossed with bridges where couples walk hand in hand past pretty hanging flower baskets as weeping willows cascade into crystal clear waters.
“Thun is to the Jungfrau region what the overture is to the opera,” exclaimed our guide Elisabeth Mettler at the Bahnhof (train station). “We open the door to the Bernese Oberland and one can reach the best places to ski and hike – Wengen, Murren and Grindelwald – in just an hour.” Unlike the financial capital Zurich, the Canton of Bern is known for its unhurried approach to life. People love to take things slow and enjoy a small coffee or beer at the cafes by the Aare. Stores in the old town often close for lunch and a leisurely heritage walk is the best way to explore town.
We walked from the station down Othmar-Schoeck Weg, named after a Swiss composer; just across the riverbank lay Brahms Quay, named after another famous composer. Many roads and alleys are named after eminent personalities who spent weeks holidaying in Thun. Constant floods led the city folk to divert the river through a dry moat creating the island of Bälliz, today the main shopping district.
Five bridges connect Bälliz to the medieval city center and we took the quaint Untere Schleuse (upper flood gate), a covered wooden bridge originally built in 1724. Together with the lower sluice, they regulate the water flow of the Aare river. If all 20 gates are opened, it will lower the lake’s level by 20 cm in a day, explained our guide.
The spot where the water gushed out of the sluices was the city’s Surf Point where surfboarders practiced against roiling waves. In July-Aug, the city’s youngsters line the riverfront in beachwear, often jumping into the waters to cool off and Thun resembles Rio or Hawaii than a typical Swiss town.
Around the scenic lake you’ll find the oldest sailing school of Switzerland and the largest garrison. In the 1830s, the Knechtenhofer brothers laid the foundation for boat excursions on Lake Thun. They ordered an iron steamboat ‘Bellevue’ from Paris for their hotel De Bains le Vielle Viel, the first in Thun with tapped water in the rooms. The steamer had an organ that played God Save the Queen!
Grand Hotel Thunerhof, built in 1875, was once the most luxurious address in the Bernese Oberland that hosted kings, emperors and czars. Now converted into town offices, the ground floor houses the Kunstmuseum dedicated to contemporary art with a small coffee shop next door.
Our hotel Freienhof was one of the earliest inns in Thun overlooking the Sinnebrucke Bridge, the oldest river crossing between Bern and Interlaken. Another former hotel Beau Rivage today has the best Italian restaurant in town, Da Domenico Beau Rivage. Thun is a beautiful old town with charming monuments.
We walked past a reddish building – the narrowest in Switzerland, and the Knechtenhofer House where Napoleon III, nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte stayed. At the heart of town is Mill Square where yellow outlines mark the spot where the mill once stood. Now it’s a leisure spot perfect in summer to quaff beer; in winter time, the chairs are draped in wool, fur and blankets for people to snugly enjoy coffee and hot chocolate.
Thun’s town square is one of the most beautiful in Switzerland. The Rathaus (Town Hall) dates back to 1500. Back then, there were no banks and money was kept in the stadt kirche (city church). A theft led to a treasury tower being added in 1585. Former guild houses of bakers and butchers now double up as hotels and restaurants.
Walking down Obere Hauptgasse (Upper Main Street), we marveled at the boutiques along the unique raised pavements in Altstadt (Old Town), peculiar to Thun. Be it herb shops like Secret Nature or Catlovers, the only dedicated cat shop in Switzerland, there’s a surprise lurking at every corner. At the east end of the cobbled street, a long flight of stairs called Kirchtreppe led up to Thun Schloss (castle).
Lording over town on Castle Hill, the medieval Thun Schloss was built around 1190 by Duke Bertold V of Zähringen. We trudged up, pausing for a breath at a pavilion with lovely murals on the ceiling. This ‘fortified hill’, dunum in Celtic, gave the town its name. The majestic donjon or keep capping the citadel is the city’s famous landmark and the knight’s hall, one of the best preserved and largest surviving Swiss banquet halls of the High Middle Ages.
In 1888, a Historical Museum was opened in the castle and for a while the jailer was also the ticket seller and guard for the museum! The medieval castle also houses a restaurant, prison, court and well with the corner turrets offering 360-degree views over town.
Staying at Hotel Freienhof entitled us to the PanoramaCard (similar to the Zurich Card). Besides the free Thun city tour, we got complimentary bus rides. At Oberhofen, the lakeside Schloss (castle) was set in a landscaped park with its picturesque lake turret jutting out of the waters. Our visit coincided with the annual Castle Day and locals in period costumes livened up the proceedings.
A hat rack had various period headgear for visitors to try on! A tour of the castle, plush chambers and 19th century servants’ quarters revealed how nobility and their domestic staff lived. The medieval keep with an oriental smoking lounge was stunning. We headed next to Spiez, with its scenic marina, vineyards and castle with a Romanesque church on a beautiful peninsula by the lake.
But the highlight was the romantic boat cruise on Lake Thun with BLS Navigation. With special fondue dinners and wine sourced from the vineyards of Spiez, it was a lovely ride past little towns and mountains like the ‘Swiss Pyramid’ Mount Niesen and Stockhorn.
We clinked our glasses and gazed at the fiery sunset with the Swiss flag of our vessel ‘Stadt Thun’ fluttering the breeze. We half expected credits to roll or a director’s voice to shout ‘Cut’.
Fly Swiss www.swiss.com from Mumbai to Zürich International Airport (8 hr 55 min). Board an SBB (Swiss Federal Railways) train www.SwissTravelSystem.com via Bern (1hr 20 min) to Thun. BLS Navigation www.bls.ch runs nine boats on lakes Thun and Brienz.
Berner Oberland Bahn (BOB) from Interlaken Ost station provides the first stage of mountain railway routes like Wengernalpbahn (WAB) and Jungfraubahn (JB) to Grindelwald, Lauterbrunnen, Wengen, Kleine Scheidegg and Europe’s highest station at Jungfraujoch. A 3-day Jungfrau VIP pass with unlimited travel costs CHF 235 (available from 1 May-26 Oct at all stations). www.jungfrau.ch
While staying overnight in one of the participating hotels in the Lake Thun region you receive a complimentary PanoramaCard that offers free rides on city buses and trams no matter where you stay between Thun and Interlaken, with discounted admission to public pools, castles, museums, nature parks and a free guided city tour in Thun.
When to Go
Every Wed and Sat, farmers markets are held in the Bälliz, flea markets on every first Sat of the month on Mühleplatz and an artisan market every fourth Sat of the month at Waisenhausplatz. Thunfest in early August is the largest city open-air festival in Switzerland. Thun’s Fulehung Folk festival is held on the last weekend in Sep and marked with colourful street parades. In Nov-Dec, the town centre is decked up with Advent and Christmas markets while local hunters sell their fox furs and showcase their trophies in the annual fur market (second Sat in Feb) near Hotel Freienhof.
Ph +41 33 2275050
After the original hotel was burnt down, a newer one was built in 1958 and renovated in 2006. Great location by the river in the city center close to the station with complimentary breakfast. You’ll find the room numbers on the ceiling!
Obere Hauptgasse 2
Ph +41 33 227 88 88
Located in the main square, the 15th century guild house of the bakers became an inn in 1821 and has been privately owned since 1852. Today it’s a charming 4-star hotel on the historic Rathausplatz.
Victoria Jungfrau Grand Hotel & Spa
Ph +41 33 828 28 28
Overlooking the large central park Höhematte and Jungfrau in the distance, it is easily the best address in town (doubles CHF 438-588) with a fine Italian restaurant and the award-winning Nescens spa.
Ph +41 33 826 01 60
An Art Nouveau hotel with over a century of hospitality (doubles CHF 158); from 1 Jan 2019 it is the first Swiss ‘adults only hotel’ that accommodates only guests over 16 years.
Ph +41 44 370 30 30
Cool boutique hotel in downtown Zurich’s Seefeld district, walking distance from Lake Zurich’s promenade, Opera House and famous shopping mile Bahnhofstrasse. Rooms are named after the sights they overlook, with amazing self-service breakfast.
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the February 2019 issue of Travel + Leisure magazine.