On New Year’s Day 2020, Rick Steves’ Europe lost one of our oldest and dearest friends: Walter Mittler, who ran Hotel Mittaghorn in Gimmelwald, Switzerland. Walter, who was in his mid-90s, died peacefully in the hotel that was his home for the last half of his life, in a tiny village surrounded by the wonder of the Swiss Alps.
Gimmelwald is that pristine alpine village that inspired me to say (on my first visit, in my student backpacker days), “If heaven isn’t what it’s cracked up to be…send me back to Gimmelwald.” For four decades, a big part of the heavenly nature of Gimmelwald was Walter’s welcome.
I’ve long said that my passion as a guidebook writer is to connect people with people, and that my favorite hotels and restaurants are the ones that are “personality-driven.” There was no hotel more “personality-driven” than Walter’s Hotel Mittaghorn. In fact, by the power of Walter’s passion to house and feed travelers and nature lovers affordably in the pricey Swiss Alps, his hotel was generally known as “Walter’s Hotel”…or even simply “Walter’s.” For decades, when travelers said they stayed at Walter’s, it was the kickoff of a fun sharing of memories and stories about the conviviality and good food that sprung from that humble mountain chalet and its host.
Walter was a chef for Swiss Air. When his aunt got emphysema, he changed gears and moved up to Hotel Mittaghorn—taking his aunt with him into the high country for the healthier air.
Back when I was a budding tour operator, Walter was the hotelier who nudged me from my rustic youth hostel days to seeking out characteristic guesthouses that sparkled with the personality of their hosts. I’ll never forget the day in the late 1970s when I checked my little tour group into our rustic Gimmelwald hostel and found a handwritten invitation to hike up the hill to visit Hotel Mittaghorn. From then on, Walter’s was our home in Gimmelwald. For the next couple decades of tours, we’d book out his entire hotel — filling all of his rooms and sending our overflow (the most rugged of our tour members) up the creaky stairs to his top-floor Matratzenlager (mattress dorm).
I’d wake early and step outside with Walter. He’d look skyward and give me the yea or nay in regards to the weather. If it was a “nay,” we’d slumber on. If it was a “yea,” I’d rouse the entire group and we’d hustle to the lift and ride to the summit of the Schilthorn.
Walter simplified his life as the years went on. Eventually his menu was a board with two sides: The first night was spaghetti, and on the second night, he’d flip it over to chicken and vegetables. The salad was always fresh, picked hours earlier from his garden. Walter and I invented a “traditional” drink we called “the Heidi Cocoa” (hot chocolate and schnapps). It was a bestseller — especially when the local farmer with the accordion would drop by after dinner for dancing. With faces sunburned from our hikes, and smiling big from the high-altitude ambiance Walter created after dark, we’d cap our days in Walter’s dining room creating lifelong memories.
When I visited one winter for skiing, Walter surprised me with an invitation to sled down from Mürren (the next town above). It occurred to me that, after a decade of friendship, I’d never seen Walter out of his hotel. With a boyish smile, suddenly about 40 years younger, he put on his headlamp and grabbed me and his antique wooden sleds. We rode the lift up to Mürren, then gleefully sledded the trail — iced into what was closer to a luge course — back down to Gimmelwald…capping the fun with a nice Heidi Cocoa.
I don’t think Walter could live anywhere else but at Hotel Mittaghorn. And I think the opportunity to help house and feed travelers is what got him out of bed, long after that had become a struggle. Walter ran the hotel (with the necessary help of his right-hand-man, trusty Tim) longer than what was probably best for his guests. For the last decade, he shuffled more, muttered more, had a harder time with the stairs, and refused to join the computer age. But his passion for hospitality and travel and his good nature stayed fresh as the snow on the trees that surrounded him each winter.
While the consummate host, Walter was also the village loner in many ways — and very modest. He left a simple will asking that his ashes be placed in a common, nameless grave in the nearby town of Thun. And with that, Walter is gone.
I believe that heaven is what it’s cracked up to be. And now, a little piece of Gimmelwald has made it even better. Walter, thanks for the joy you brought so many travelers. Bless your beautiful soul.