Cheered on by the Gnomes of Gimmelwald

Every two years my guidebook research brings me to my favorite corner of the Swiss Alps, as I visit my friends who run the little places that accommodate my traveling readers in the tiny village of Gimmelwald.

Walter, who runs Hotel Mittaghorn, is 82 now…slowing down but shuffling on. To most people, he just giggles and muses about this and that incomprehensibly. But it all makes sense to Walter. Tim from Britain looks after Walter and the hotel. Tim’s in a brace after a parasailing accident. Hard landings seem to make him seem shorter each year I visit. We have our annual meeting to lighten Walter’s workload. A new fire regulation cuts his hotel capacity to 15 — a blessing. Later, in the village center, I meet a stream of Walter’s guests…all thrilled to stay at Hotel Mittaghorn.

Down in the town, I drop in on Olle and Maria, the school teachers who share the 120-person village’s single teaching position. They cut me some hard alp cheese as we review their B&B business. Maria says she doesn’t understand why, in 12 years, they’ve never had a black visitor from the US. She promises to give a free room to the first black American family that comes. I wandered how that offer would look in my guidebook. I joked I wanted the offer for all black people for an entire year. (Anyway…if you’re a black American, you’ve got a free room here in paradise!)

I drop in on Esther, the dynamo farm girl who now, with her expanded guesthouse, has the biggest business in the village. She asked if my describing her place as an “upscale mini-hostel” wasn’t a bit off. I agreed.

Esther also rents rustic spots across the street in her barn. She’s received some complaints, and was concerned we were overselling it in the guidebook. She asked, “Shouldn’t we call it a ‘stable?’ And you should tell of the smell and the flies. Americans don’t handle flies well. It smells like a barn — manure. You must tell them directly.” With my new, more frank write-up, I told her, “If anyone complains, it’s their own fault.”

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My favorite visit in the village is the Mountain Hostel run by Petra. After dark it’s a glowing light of travel happiness in this sleeping village. It was filled with a likable, well-scrubbed gang — kids any parent would be thrilled to see their teenager hanging out with. Everyone seemed to be instant friends. I meet a Jeremy, a 15-year-old with his dad. He was immersed in a raucous world of 18-to-25 year-olds with the world by the tail. This was his first hostel…we celebrated the fact. A college student from San Diego with big hair, “carpe diem” tattooed on his underarm, and a determination to be a great high-school teacher, joined in the conversation. All agreed the world needs more “Dead Poets Society” teachers. The topic turned to whether history as taught in the USA is ethnocentric. A woman who left her five-year-old daughter sleeping in the barn (swatting flies), said, “I’m a history teacher”…and joined in the conversation.

I met with Petra — sitting in the kitchen while she cooked up her famous pizzas. She grew up by the hostel in the next village, and remembered loving the way American couples called each other “honey.” She married local boy Wally, and they did wonders making the Gimmelwald hostel the money-less mountain-lovers’ El Dorado it is today. As a courageous woman with a vision, she ruffled village feathers. Her father-in-law never even visited the work of Wally and Petra for years.

Petra’s only request for the next edition of the guidebook: Shame the guys into splitting lumber for the wood-heated hot tub. I stepped out back to a gleeful gang of happy hikers in a half-barrel-design hot tub. Standing in the tub posing for photos, they looked like a bundle of white asparagus. As I always say, “If heaven isn’t what it’s cracked up to be…send me back to Gimmelwald.”

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An artist sketched a funny cartoon entitled “The Adoration of Rick Steves” with hostellers using my guidebook like the Bible. And it occurred to me: If any place was a springboard for my career, it was this hostel back in the 1970s.

When I first came in 1976, goats lived downstairs. Bent old Lena (who sounded like a goat when she talked) would hobble over once a day and collect two francs. Today it may cost 25 francs to sleep here — but Gimmelwald hostel provides the same magic. I told Petra she should have a photo of Lena on the wall. She pointed to the space above the bar…and there she was.

Lena’s gone. There’s not only a shower…but a hot tub. And a generation after me, the essential magic of slumming it in the Alps is unchanged. Walking home through the darkness, I could almost hear the gnomes of Gimmelwald cheering me on. My work brings me great joy.


26 Replies to “Cheered on by the Gnomes of Gimmelwald”

  1. Gimmelwald is a Favourite Rick – Thanks for the BLOG. It is worth your effort. We are all enjoying it immensely. I stayed at Esther’s and it was excellent. Looking out my window and I see the Alps right there. Esther had a kitchen which was great for breakfast and snacks. I bought groceries in Murren. Met some nice people from Australia and Japan and we all went to dinner for raclette in Pension Gimmelwald one night. Shared stories and beers in Esther’s kitchen too. The whole experience was magical. I loved leaning out the window from the kitchen area at midnight to look at the stars and hear the traffic noise (it was soooo quiet). Missed Walter’s but would visit next time. Cable to Shilthorn was fun. Every stop was 10 degrees Celsius colder until at the top was zero. Back in Murren later temp was 20 degrees and in November vegetables were still growing on hillside gardens. A visit for a lifetime. Will be back as soon as time permits.

  2. Rick, you mention at the end of this latest blog entry that your work brings you great joy. I just wanted to let you know — yet again — that your work and this blog brings many of us a great deal of joy, as well. I’d love to be walking with you through the Alps and sharing beers in Gimmelwald, among other places. I can’t be there, but your writing brings it alive. I can close my eyes and almost see it; I can let my mind wander and taste the beer and smell the stables. This blog is the next best thing to actually being there, and I for one truly appreciate you writing it. Thanks for everything.

  3. We think Bern, Switzerland, would be our favorite place to live in Europe. Downtown Bern is situated on a level place with a sharp drop down to the “U” of the River Aare. There are blocks of arcaded shopping streets, with excellent stores protected from the weather. A beautiful clock tower is in the middle of The Marktgasse, the smart and lively main street. A flat at Kramgasse No. 49, rented by Albert Einstein in 1903, has been restored in the style of that period. We saw nice homes and apartment buildings, parks and open areas, the Bernese Alps not far away. Of our 32 nights in Switzerland over the years, we spent at least one night in each of the following: Basel, Berne, Brienz, Faido, Flaach, Geneva, Grindelwald, Interlaken, Lausanne, Leysin, Lucerne, Lugano, Mumpk, Near Zurich, St Moritz, Tasch, Villars, Worb, and Zernez. One night in Geneva, the campground owner had just died, so we stopped at a hotel, other nights were in our RV with Switzerland’s scenery just out the window.

  4. Favorite Swiss moment: My husband snapping a photo of me, a la Julie Andrews, Sound of Music, in a beautiful grassy meadow just above Gimmelwald. Can’t wait to go back. Thanks for bringing all the good memories flooding back.

  5. I have not been able to travel for years but one of my favorite moments in Gimmelwald sitting on the front porch of the hostel visiting with my wife and Lena. All of my photos have been lost in a fire, but I can still still see Gimmelwald and hear the cow bells. Thanks Rick I still travel through your books and your TV programs.

  6. My husband and I stayed at Walter’s on an anniversary trip to Germany, Switzerland and Austria several years ago. We still remember sleeping in a room with a bed so short that both our feet rested on the footboard, seeing the cows all decorated with flowers as they were brought down from the summer alpine pastures to the village, and enjoying Walter’s fabulous cooking. What a great place!

  7. Rick, as with so many others here, I just wanted to let you know how much I’ve been enjoying your Blog. Your wonderfully descriptive style of writing is a pleasure to read! Gimmelwald was most definitely one of my favourite places on my trip last fall, and it’s never far from my thoughts. I can hardly wait to return! My only regret is that the Pensione has closed, as the owners were wonderful hosts and the building (like so many others there) had a lot of character. I look forward to your next installment!

  8. I’ve really enjoyed your latest blog entries, 3 it’s even better that you’ve been adding photos as you post them. Your writing style is great, and I, like others who have commented, can visualize so well what you describe; 3 the photos just take it to a whole other level and provide a greater sense of personal connection with your readers to the people whom you encounter on your journeys. Keep up the good work & happy travels!

  9. Gimmelwald looks beautiful! I’m planning my trip with your guidebooks. Thanks for sharing what you love with others so we can love it, too. Happy travels!

  10. Greetings, Rick: Like a summer evening’s trip to DQ, your blog is a refreshing, hard-to-resist treat. My wife and I have the fondest memories of our time spent in the Berner Oberland, and your guidebook was an invaluable resource as we toured that lovely region. Thanks. As regards the lodging scene in Gimmelwald, it’s too bad about the recent closing of the Pension Restaurant. What a nice spot it was to enjoy a bite of lunch and a couple cold ones while marveling at the work of Mother Nature. Perhaps a new establishment will fill this void. Safe and happy travels to you.

  11. That’s a shame about Tim. He was incredibly nice and helpful when we were there last fall. I hope he is feeling better now. Walter is a fabulous cook. I really hope to be back there and experience it all over again, but as time clicks by I am not sure I will get to be at Walters any time soon. One pleasant surprise about being there…it was the best internet connection we had on our 2 week trip to Germany/Switzerland. Love it there!!

  12. In all aspects of travel-Different Strokes for Different Folks. It is our opinion that hotels and restaurants are tools of travel, not destinations. Thank goodness my Beautiful Sweetie was in agreement. We are not campers, but to travel in an RV we saw three or four times as many items of interest while we traveled, as do people who spend hours each day looking for, and eating in restaurants, and packing and unpacking a suitcase. Our 968 nights in Europe include 23 nights in hotels. Our 6 months in France (9 trips) includes not one hotel room, and only a couple of meals in what most travelers call a “real” restaurant. Remember, a clerk in a grocery or bakery are thrilled to meet an American, a bellhop and a waiter are thrilled to get a tip. We are there to learn about their home and way of life, but while food and drink are important to some, it is of no interest to us. Our small RV was home for months at a time. We spent some nights with a dozen of Emmy’s German Cousins.

  13. Wow, 13 comments to date and not one single one regarding a very important issue Rick brought up (however off-handedly) in this post – why do African-Americans not travel to Europe, specifically Switzerland, specifically Gimmelwald? Is Rick Steve’s audience that lily-white?! When I get back to work on Monday, I will talk to my African-American coworkers about it and tell them about Maria’s offer.

  14. each time I read anything you have written about Switzerland, and especially Gimmelwald and the surrounding villages, my heart aches to return again. We have been to Switzerland 7 times and each time we have spent some time in Gimmelwald. Have not slept there yet. Winter in Gimmelwald is absolutely breathtaking and the summer is so “homie” that it is hard to move on. Rick you have to spend a night in Kandersteg. It is also a beautiful little village. Rosti and sausages and hard rolls, beautiful scenery, friendly villagers, adorable cows with enchanting bells, and sleigh rides in the winter all lure us to return again and again. We read about Gimmelwald about 12 years ago in your books and have loved it ever since. Keep up the great descriptions. Ken and Marilyn Stiller in Indiana July 28 about 10:45 p.m.

  15. I don’t think Rick’s fans are all whites. I am an Asian American who happens to love reading Rick’s blog, TV shows, and use his guidebooks each time we visit Europe. We’d visited the Swiss Alps, stayed at Murren and Lautrebrunnen. Gimmelwald will be next on our list when we go back.

  16. Slight misunderstanding. Tims back brace was needed (back) in 2004. Hes broken a few additional bones since then, but is currently doing just fine!

  17. Yes, black Americans do watch Rick, read his blog and travel to Europe. I have been four times and I’m planning a fifth. I have not been to Switzerland yet. I think for a lot of blacks, there is a hesitancy to venture outside the major cities. It’s much more comfortable to be in a place where you occasionally see people who look like you. When I was in northern Minnesota, I spent an entire week without seeing another black face. How many white people have done that? Anyway, my next trip will be a long one, as I’m planning to take a leave from work. I might pass through Interlaken, and if I do, I will certainly give Gimmelwald a try.

  18. I have this theory that if Rick Steves’ readers and audiences were in charge of world governments, the world would be a much kinder ,peaceful place. Perhaps the most well travelled man I’ve known is African-American, he’s a retired diplomat, a friend of my parents. Would love it if Rick’s offered a Switzerland specific summer tour package!

  19. Gimmelwald is, arguably, one of the most beautiful places in the world. I have one disagreement with the story; my family and I slept in the straw (i.e. stable) and do not seem to remember any flies or bad smells. In fact, the only smell was the great “grassy” smell of the cut straw. This experience is one that everyone in our group will remember for the rest of their lives. That and drinking the best and coldest water coming right out of the mountains.

  20. Hey Rick, Im the teenager you mentioned in the blog. I just want to let you know what a great time I had travelling via your guide books and how much they inhance the experience. Gimmelwald was the best place I had ever been and the Mountain Hostel was such a blast. Everyone there is so friendly and all the people at all times are having a blast, despite the age gap between the partying 20-somethings and I it was the most fun I had my whole trip. Thanks Rick!

  21. My husband & I live in SW Germany and making our 4th trip this yr to Switzerland – tomorrow to Lucerne. We have done a Schlaf im Stroh (sleep in the straw) on nearly every trip. As wknd travelers, we find it’s the affordable way to enjoy CH (we travel every wknd, trying to squeeze the most we can in to 1 yr). For 20-26SF, we get a comfortable night sleep & a farm-fresh breakfast. The food depends on what the farm produces, but it’s always good, coffee strong & after-breakfast entertainment memorable – wandering in the barn, snapping pictures of the residents: goats, cows, pigs, chickens, even bees. In Vevey, we had a view over Lake Geneva you couldn’t get from a hotel. Went to Gimmewald at Christmas so no barn, but did visit Esther. Don’t know we’ll go back (other places to see!). Perhaps a rural farm, not a town, is a better 1st time experience? Europeans are easier going when it comes to smells, funky bathrms. Support a farmer – Schalf im Stroh! Carolyn

  22. When traveling in Europe we use Rick’s books like the Bible….we live by them. We add our own comments and have given them to friends to use encouraging them to make their own comments before returning them to us.

  23. I’ve visited the Berner Oberland in the summer and LOVED it! Now I’m hoping to go back in the winter. Anyone have any winter tips? I’m hoping to snowboard there, assuming they will let you… I’ve heard they still don’t allow snowboarding at many resorts…??? Thanks for any info anyone contributes along these lines!

  24. Maria missed one of her chances to house an African-American back in the summer of 2003. We got off the gondola at Gimmelwald with a retired teacher from Troy NY who was African-American and he stayed at the Pension Gimmelwald for 5 days just as our family did. He was carrying a copy of Rick’s guide book. He joined us for one of our hikes during that time and also for meals whenever we showed up at the same time.

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