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“We should hike the Gemmi Pass,” I tell Mark, my husband of two weeks, as we’re having tea at our hotel in Leukerbad, the highest Alpine spa town in Switzerland. After all, Mark is the one who said we shouldn’t stay in the hot springs pools all the time, but should get out and have more of a well-rounded honeymoon.
The Gemmi Pass sounds perfect. One of the goals of our honeymoon was to get out in nature and this would be nature magnified. The Gemmi Pass is a famous mountain pass, which somehow I’d never heard of until today, but now that I know how many artists and writers have crossed it before me, it’s become a ‘must do’ attraction in my mind.
A renowned trail when you least expect it
Who knew there was such a artistic and literary trail such as the Gemmi Pass at our fingertips? Isn’t that just like Switzerland? You think you’re in the far reaches of nowhere, because Leukerbad does have a bit of a ‘outpost in the Alps’ type of feel, only to learn that a whole host of luminaries beat you to it by centuries.
“What’s the Gemmi Pass?” Mark asks.
“Ah, let me tell you.” I sit back, sip my thyme tea and pretend I’m an expert. “The Gemmi Pass connects Leukerbad in the canton of Valais with the town of Kandersteg in the canton of Bern. And it’s somehow famous for a cat.”
“Somehow?” Mark asks.
“Yes, well. I haven’t got that far in my research.”
A Who’s Who list of hikers on the Gemmi
In addition to the cat, which I learn later was the landlord’s pet at the Hotel Schwarenbach and which enjoyed hiking with the hotel guests, an entire Who’s Who of historical celebrities have crossed the Gemmi Pass.
Picasso hiked the Gemmi Pass in 1933. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle hiked it – and therefore, by association, so did Sherlock Holmes, who crossed it en route to meet the dastardly Moriarty in Meiringen. Mark Twain tramped the Gemmi Pass and so did Jules Verne back in 1873.
The infamous Hotel Schwarenback on the Gemmi
And all the artists and writers who went up there stayed at the mysterious Hotel Schwarenbach that lies within the pass. Opened in 1742, the Schwarenback had a dire reputation as being full of thieves and killers (although, apparently, only one person was actually murdered there and that was back in 1807).
An isolated place
Mark Twain wrote about the Hotel Schwarenbach in A Tramp Abroad, saying it sits “on a lonely spot among the peaks, where it’s swept by the trailing fringes of the cloud rack and is rained on and snowed on and pelted and persecuted by the storms nearly every day of its life.”
Doesn’t that sound irresistibly dramatic? If Mark and I hike the Gemmi Pass we could stay at the Hotel Schwarenback and associate with thieves and celebrity writers! Or at least the ghosts of them. It sounds beyond romantic, and it is our honeymoon after all.
The problem is we already have a hotel, Les Sources des Alpes in Leukerbad and it’s really too comfortable to leave. It’s almost as historical as the Hotel Schwarenbach. Les Sources des Alpes opened as a ‘cure’ hotel in 1834, a place for people to come and find peace and health in the mineral-rich hot springs that burst out of Leukerbad at a mind-astounding 3.9 million litres per day – by volume the most thermal water in all of Europe. (So you can see why I never really want to leave the pools.)
More famous people in Leukerbad
Alexandre Dumas stayed at Les Sources des Alpes and wrote about it in Voyage en Suisse. (Now where can I get a copy of that?) And Leo Tolstoy stayed here. And Pablo Picasso, no doubt en route to the Gemmi Pass, and Charlie Chaplin and … oh, right, Dita Von Teese. I know this because I saw her autographed photo in the bar.
“The Gemmi Pass doesn’t sound too strenuous,” I say. “Because you can take a cable car up at one end and down at the other.”
This is unlike in the early days, when you used to have to climb up the mountain face first. (Note, that should be read as mountain face first, not mountain face first, because that would just be too painful.) “It’s 12 km long and takes about 3 hours to hike. And there’s a pretty alpine lake up there called Lake Daubensee.”
Mark gives me a who are you kidding look and takes a glance at my fashionable boots, which really are quite gorgeous, with padded leather up to the knee and which were bought especially for the honeymoon.
“I can change into hiking boots,” I say, just a titch haughtily because obviously I know you don’t go climbing in fashion boots, you sit around the hotel drinking thyme tea and wonder why they don’t serve thyme tea in Canada, because it’s really very aromatic.
The scent of the Alps
“We don’t have to hike the whole thing,” I add. Though I’m convinced that once Mark gets on the trail and feels the scent of a literary quest he’ll change his mind. And how fit was Picasso anyway? And the cat. If a cat can hike the Gemmi Pass, so can I.
First attempt at the Gemmi Pass
“The cable car doesn’t look open,” Mark says after we’ve walked past all the little chalet-style restaurants and inns in town to the Gemmi Cable Car at the foot of the mountain. “Maybe they’re closed for the season.”
I’m not ready to give up so easily, though admittedly, there are no people around and no cable cars moving. On the other hand, it doesn’t look completely boarded up. “Maybe they’re on lunch.” I say. The sun has come out so we take off our jackets and lounge around, walk up the slope a bit, then stop. “What’s that?” I ask, as a low rumbling sound comes from side of the mountain.
Mountainous perils on the Gemmi Pass
“It’s an avalanche. Look!” Mark points and I see a tumble of water or snow (we couldn’t quite tell which) falling off a cliff in the distance. For the first time it occurs to me that crossing the Gemmi Pass might be a more serious endeavour than I thought.
Which just makes it more exciting!
But after an hour with no sign of life at the cable car we sadly turn back and head to the Leukerbad Tourist Information Centre where they look out the window (a wonderful high tech moment) to confirm the cable car isn’t running, make a call and tell us the winds are too high, but that we can go up the next day.
The next day dawns clear and sunny so at the crack of noon (well, we needed to go to the pools) we’re back at the cable car and in about 6 minutes are high in the snow peaks at 2350 metres above sea level.
I’m eager to start hiking the Gemmi, so after posing around for photos, stopping for a bowl of broth with vegetables at the mountaintop Restaurant Wildstrubel (well, I’m hungry, I tell Mark) and looking out over a precarious metal sightseeing platform to stare at the mountains (Look! There’s the Matterhorn, one of those tiny little peaks in the distance!), we finally get outside.
Heading around the back of the restaurant, I come face to face with the Alps. It’s just me and nature (and all the people in the restaurant behind, and Mark, of course, but still).
A sublime moment in the Swiss Alps
This is the sublime, I think. This huge expanse of grey rock and snow. This is the majesty that has driven artists and writers for centuries. It’s the reason that trails such as the Gemmi Pass became 19th century classics. Just for this feeling. This shivery we’re-so-puny moment when man and monumental wilderness meet …
“Carol?” Marks says. “Are you listening?”
“Oh, right.” I say. “Okay. Let’s go.” Clouds are moving in, making the sky and ground blur together.
“Well, where’s the trail?” I look around. I don’t even see a path.
“I don’t know,” Mark says, who doesn’t seem to think heading into the Swiss Alps without a map, guide, food or water – even if I am wearing my hiking boots – is a good idea.
I bound off into the snow anyway. Surely there is a clearly marked trail somewhere. If Picasso could find it, and Guy de Maupassant – who I didn’t mention before but who wrote a tale of suspense and horror set at the Hotel Schwarenbach – then so can I.
Only the snow really is getting into the ankles of my hiking boots, making me think that the knee-high fashion boots might have been the way to go after all, and I am sinking quite a bit, although not waist high, as Mark seems to think I’m going to be …
“Carol! Where are you?” thunders Mark from around a hill.
“I’m here!” I say, backtracking to the crest of the small rocky plateau he’s standing on. “I’m looking for the trail.”
“We’d better go back.”
“Well!” I assume a disappointed look. “I mean, if you really don’t want to …” Hmmph, I’m thinking, stamping back to the cable car. If not for Mark I’d be following the trail of the literary greats right now, proving not only my physical prowess but my literary prowess, too, because who knows what I would have written once I’d made it to the Hotel Schwarenback?
Other Leukerbad hikes
If I’d made it, says a small voice inside, which I quell immediately. And even though I didn’t successfully hike the entire trail, I was probably on it for a few feet and just didn’t realize it. And it’s not as if I’m not a skilled hearty hiker. There are plenty of other strenuous hikes to do around the town of Leukerbad and I plan to do them all. T
here’s that Thermal Water Hike that goes along a gorge. Probably that takes a lot of courage and strength to complete. Maybe we can do that one tomorrow.
And I’ll bet there are plenty of celebrity artists and writers that came up to the Gemmi Pass and got all the inspiration they needed just by looking at it and feeling the majesty of the mountain, and then went home and wrote brilliant novels and philosophical essays or painted some amazing Cubist works. Maybe I’ll do the same.
And no matter how much these celebrity hikers bragged about their thrill-seeking adventures, I’ve learned that in the past crossing the Gemmi Pass wasn’t always the extreme sporting challenge it was made out to be.
Not-so-intrepid hikers could be carried up in sedan chairs or in what was known as “Little Gemmi Carriages.” And if only I’d had the option of a carriage, I’d be at the Hotel Schwarenback right now.
Travel tips for Leukerbad and the Gemmi Pass
Leukerbad is a small spa town in southwestern Switzerland. Hiking, skiing and going to the spa are popular activities. To get here, take the train to Leuk and bus 471 from there. (The bus stop is right at the train station and times are coordinated with the trains, so it’s not complicated.)
The Gemmi Cable Car, or Gemmi Bahn
The Gemmi Cable Car goes every 30 minutes, except during busy times when it goes every 10 minutes. The price is about $35 for a round trip. It’s open almost year round, but it does close during late fall and spring. The Hotel Shwarenbach also closes.
About the Valais
The canton of Valais is the place to go if you love mountains and glacial valleys. It’s home to such Alpine superstars as the Matterhorn, Verbier, Zermatt and, of course, Leukerbad. What’s not to love?
Lost in translation
According to the Leukerbad Tourist Office, where Mark and I stopped on our way back from the Gemmi, the trail itself is easy to find. In fact, it’s evidently right there when you get off the cable car. I never said I was a sleuth. But don’t ask for the Gemmi Pass – search for the trail to Kandersteg. The Gemmi Pass, or Gemmi Bahn, is the name of the cable car station, so people will think you’re asking for directions to the place where you already are. That seems very existential somehow. And so are the Alps.
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