In Alpine villages, Hobbits lurk

With jagged peaks, glacial grottoes and fertile dells of wildflowers, it was Switzerland’s epic landscape – not New Zealand – that inspired JRR Tolkien.

No 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.

But 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.

That’s 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.”

In 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.

Traversing 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.

For 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).

The 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.

Tolkien 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 Gornergrat, 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.

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 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 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 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.