Saturday, 18 January 2014

Switzerland: Lake Thun (possibly with a few references to the Chalet School books of Elinor M Brent-Dyer)



Map of the Thunersee
Last summer we went twice to the Thunersee which is one of the two lakes on either side of Interlaken. And yes, if you never thought about it before, Interlaken is between two lakes. Lake Thun is the left hand one. OK, the western lake. And Lake Brienz is the other one. Which I've seen but not visited properly and which, you have no doubt noticed, is not featured on this map.

Fans of the Chalet School books will know that Lake Thun is where the girls swim and boat in the summer term. They are regularly described as taking the mountain train down to Interlaken and then a ferry to a suitable beach.

One of the charms of the early Chalet School books is the detailed setting. They are set in the Austrian Tirol where Elinor Brent-Dyer spent an obviously happy holiday. She fell in love with the Achensee (Tiernsee in the books) and wrote vividly and convincingly about the countryside, the lake, the surrounding villages and the people.

Sadly when she decided to move her fictional school to the Bernese Oberland in Switzerland she didn't visit the area. Whether through lack of money or time, or whether she thought she could manage with guide book research I don't know. But it shows.

I have been reading these books since I was 10 and I really wanted to see Interlaken and Lake Thun. And now that I've been there I'm fascinated not so much at the number of mistakes (although there are plenty of those - like the railway line along the north shore of the lake rather than the southern side) but the number of omissions.

For example I don't recall the girls taking a proper trip on the lake; a ferry to Thun or Spiez and train back or vice versa. This is odd because the Chalet School books are full of expeditions: day trips, or half-term visits to places much further away than Thun. What a shame; there's so much to see.

Embroidery showing Schloss Thun
The only time I do remember a visit to Thun it was in the Chalet School & Barbara; the first Chalet School book proper to be set in Switzerland. In Barbara there was a series of trips arranged on the first Saturday of term.

The Lower Fifth form takes the ferry to Thun (that's about 2 hours on the boat) and then walks back to Interlaken "by degrees". Did Elinor know Lake Thun is 17.5 kilometres long (nearly 11 miles) I wonder? That's a long day for a group of schoolgirls.

Obviously there's no time for Lower Fifth to take in the town which is a shame because it's rather pretty and has a lovely castle.


We didn't spend very long in Thun itself partly because the centre of town was closed off for a music festival. However, after a bit of a battle with police barriers and having to turn back several times, we discovered the steps up from the old town, and the rather lovely pedestrian walkways around the castle, and eventually struggled up to the castle itself.

The castle is fascinating. It's full of all manner of stuff about Thun and the surrounding area from mediaeval weapons and coats of arms to modern artifacts. The embroidery shows not only the castle but also the arms of the town (the single star on a white band) and the arms of the canton of Berne.

And the castle is precipitous. Wow: there was no place for vertigo in the 12th century when they built this place! It was a wonderful hot sunny day and the views were just stunning in all directions but I'm afraid I couldn't drag myself up to the very top floor even for one more fabulous view. But then I had to struggle all the way down again. I'm just not made for climbing mountains and that's certainly what it felt like. Oh dear. I do wish they had lifts in mediaeval castles. Never mind a lift: a better hand rail on the stairs would have been a help.


One day we caught the ferry from Spiez, on the southern shores of the lake, to Thun. And the second day we caught the ferry from Thun to Interlaken. Such fun! It's lovely sitting on a comfortable boat with a glass of wine and a salami sandwich watching the world go by.

From the boat we saw the weird Niesen which is a small pyramid-shaped mountain that looms over the lake. It's really quite unusual and looks just like a mountain drawn by a child.

This is definitely somewhere to visit properly. There's a funicular railway which is bound to be scarey, and (and this is pretty amazing) the longest staircase in the world!

Trust me I'll be taking the funicular to the top even if it is scarey. But the staircase would certainly be worth a look. Whoever built a staircase up a mountain I wonder?

We were on a modern boat each day, but the ferry company also operates a traditional paddle steamer. The DS Blümlisalp was built in 1906. I found an interesting blog about her history and you can read it here. I've been on a paddle steamer on Lake Geneva and they really are beautiful boats. Lots of polished brass, and the huge engine that operates the paddles was fun to see.

The Blümlisalp was very popular  and very crowded on an August weekend. The modern boats were much less full and so more comfortable for us as we dawdled over a lazy lunch. There is one other advantage in taking the modern boat of course; you get a very nice view as you pass the paddle steamer.

DS Blümlisalp

























   I had gained the impression from reading the Chalet School books that the Thunersee is hemmed in by mountains. It's not; it's a much softer landscape as you can see from my photographs. But the Achensee is and possibly Elinor just assumed the Thunersee would be the same.

Spiez with its castle and vineyards


It's a shame there was quite a lot of cloud because we couldn't work out which mountains these are in the distance. One of them must be the Monch because that's in the middle of a group of three: the Eiger, the Monch and the Jungfrau. I think we decided that on the left is a tiny glimpse of the Eiger, and then rather more of the Monch.

When I was reading the Chalet School books as a child it never occurred to me that it was pretty odd we only ever hear about the Jungfrau which features a lot. Everyone who sees it sighs about its beauty. As an adult it bothered me a bit, and since I've been to this part of Switzerland I have really wondered how come Elinor simply never mentioned the Eiger or the Monch. Even the most basic map shows all three of them. And if you go up to, say Grindelwald (an expedition for another day), it is impossible to miss the bulk of the Eiger. It does seem odd. I can just see some of Elinor's characters talking about how grim the mountain looks.

Anyway, the Thunersee is a great place to visit and we had two wonderful days on the lake but we have to go back. I really want to visit the Niesen and I really want to visit the gorgeous little Schloss Oberhofen. Neither of us managed to take a satisfactory photograph of this lovely building so I have borrowed this image from Wikimedia Commons. A friend who used to work in Adelboden tells me the garden is worth a visit too. And if you're lucky with the weather (we weren't quite lucky enough) there are some terrific mountains as a backdrop to this very pretty landscape.

You can see why we need to go back!



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