Swiss trek takes a page from Twain

By Mark Edward Harris
Mount Rigi train Twain"There isn't a mountain in Switzerland now that hasn't a ladder railroad or two up its back like suspenders; indeed, some mountains are latticed with them."

These words were penned by Mark Twain in the late 19th century. As part of "A Tramp Abroad," published in 1880, the author wrote about his experiences exploring Switzerland's dramatic landscapes.

More than a century after Twain's death, he is still leaving tracks in Switzerland. Nature trails, city tours, plaques and a restaurant terrace are dedicated to the author. Recently I set off to see Switzerland's mammoth mountains following the footsteps and the cog-wheel train routes of this literary giant.

Twain called the Swiss town of Weggis the loveliest place in the world, "and the most satisfactory. … Sunday in heaven is noisy compared to this quietness."

The local footpaths remain much as they were when Twain hiked to the top of Mount Rigi. In 2010, on the 100th anniversary of Twain's passing, Weggis commemorated its famous guest with a Mark Twain theme trail starting near Lake Lucerne under an oak tree where the author liked to sit and close to a plaque dedicated to him in 1931.

Trains ascend Mount Rigi from Vitznau and Arth and connect with Weggis by cable car at the resort area of Rigi Kaltbad. From there the cogwheel train continues the journey to the summit of Rigi-Kulm.

Matterhorn ZermattTwain called Mount Jungfrau "the most impressive mountain mass that the globe can show. … It is as if heaven's gates had swung open and exposed the throne."

The magnificent view Twain had of the Jungfrau from the Victoria-Jungfrau Hotel in Interlaken hasn't changed. In 1912 the third leg of the rail journey to the top of the Jungfrau was opened, with the incredible journey ending in an ice cave.

Twain felt the best way to see Switzerland was on foot, and so he hiked across the Gemmi Pass in the Alps to the town of Leukerbad (www.leukerbad.ch). The Pass is now accessible by cable car.

The via ferrata route between Mount Daubenhorn and Leukerbad has the distinction of being the longest and most demanding in Switzerland. No matter how you get to Leukerbad, there is no better way to end the journey than by "taking the waters"; the town is the largest thermal spa and wellness resort in the Alps.

The Roman-Irish Bath at the Lindner Alpentherme offers a two-hour circuit combining the hot, moist air of Roman baths with the warm, dry air of the Irish bathing tradition, with a body scrub along the way.

Twain, Tolstoy and Charlie Chaplin are among celebrities who have stayed in Leukerbad's Hotel Les Sources des Alpes (www.sourcesdesalpes.ch). The five-star property has its own indoor and outdoor baths, Turkish sauna and steam room.

Zermatt, a mountaineering and ski resort town, is surrounded by towering Alps, among which rises Monte Rosa, Switzerland's highest peak at 15,203 feet. Mount Matterhorn is 14,692 feet and for many, it's Switzerland's most spectacular sight. Disneyland's version of the mountain was inspired by Walt Disney's visit to Zermatt in the 1950s.

In "A Tramp Abroad," Twain details his ascent of the nearby and more accessible Mount Riffelhorn (9,606 feet). In a heavily embellished description of the expedition, Twain lists an entourage of 205 participants, including 17 mountain guides, 22 barrels of whiskey, 27 bottles of opium tincture and 154 umbrellas as well as mules, cows, ironing ladies and pastry chefs. They assembled in front of the Hotel Monte Rosa to begin the trek.

The property still welcomes guests today. It was from this hotel in 1865 that Edward Whymper left to make history as the first man to summit the Matterhorn. On the descent a broken rope caused four of Whymper's companions to plunge to their death in an incident shrouded in controversy. The infamous rope is on display in Zermatt's Matterhorn Museum.

Most visitors reach Zermatt by cogwheel train from the nearby town of Tasch or from farther down the valley at Visp and Brig, towns on the main Swiss rail network.

Reading about all these adventurers gave me an appetite, so I treated myself to a final rosti at Zermatt's Schonegg Chalet Hotel's hilltop restaurant, Gourmetstubli. This dish can be described as very high-end hash browns with a variety of fantastic sauces to be liberally poured on top. Gourmetstubli offers a spectacular view of the Matterhorn, a perfect way to say goodbye for now to Switzerland's magnificent mountain scenery. Visit www.schonegg.ch.
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