one will believe you are going to Middle Earth. Most visitors arrive in Zurich
ready to shop on Bahnhofstrasse and sightsee in the Niederdorf old town. Or they
use the Swiss city as a jumping-off point to explore the resorts of St Moritz, Klosters or Davos.
head southwest, past the misty mountains and jagged peaks that tower over the
city of Lucerne and the lake
town of Interlaken,
and up the deeply cloven valley that winds from Lake Thun into the heart of the
Bernese Oberland region – and with a little imagination you could find yourself
staring into the verdant Elvish valley of Rivendell or in the middle of a huffing
and puffing Hobbit walking party.
because the steep-sided cliffs, glacial grottoes and fertile dells of forests
and wildflowers were the true 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 1890. But their role in the creation of
Tolkien’s fantastical Middle Earth epic is less known. The author acknowledged
as much 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.”
popular imagination, New Zealand has become the home of dwarves, elves, dragons
and 4ft-tall hairy-footed Hobbit burglars since director Sir Peter Jackson used
his homeland as the backdrop for his version of Middle Earth in the
Academy-Award winning film series. But for JRR Tolkien, it was Switzerland that
won his heart.
the Bernese Oberland on a summer holiday 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. They
were “the Silvertine of my dreams,” he wrote, referencing one of the peaks that
stood above the Dwarven city of Moria in The Lord of the Rings.
fans of the fantasy series, Switzerland’s ultra-efficient train network makes
it easy to shadow Bilbo and Frodo Baggins’ footsteps and retrace Tolkien’s journey
from the town of Interlaken (seen by Tolkien scholars as inspiration for The
Hobbit’s Esgaroth, or Lake-Town) to the moraines beyond the mountain village of
Mürren (see Mount
Doom in the final part of the Rings’ trilogy).
hybrid aerial rail and cableway Bergbahn
Lauterbrunnen-Mürren brings hikers up to car-free Mürren and its rotating
mountain restaurant Piz
Gloria atop the 2,970m Shilthorn. 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 peak – one of hardest professional
climbs in the Alps – before connecting to the Jungfraubahn train. Tackling
a steep 25% gradient, the cogwheel train tunnels its way 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 adventure.
and his party of 12 continued across a number of high altitude mountain passes,
crossing from Grosse Scheidegg to the town of 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
the village of Brig, before crossing the Aletsch glacier, the largest in the
Alps, into the popular mountain resort of Zermatt.
the country’s oldest electrified rack-and-pinion line, runs from Zermatt to the
Rotenboden railway station, where you can see Switzerland’s most famous peak,
the dagger-like spike of the Matterhorn, mirrored in the transparent waters of
the Riffelsee. 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.
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.
in October 2013 and built in the style of Bag End, Bilbo’s house in Hobbiton,
the Greisinger Museum houses the world’s
largest collection of Middle Earth-themed art, literature and collectibles. Its
founder, Bernd Greisinger, has spent decades collecting some 3,000 items,
including 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 Middle Earth realms, such as Moria
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 in 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.