A Gimmelwald Stroll

Enjoy a quiet moment with me in Gimmelwald, a little traffic-free village in Switzerland surrounded by alpine splendor. It was the evening magic hour, and I was just poking around the village, in perfect peace. The sun sets early when the sky is squeezed between mountains.

BTW, it was a handful of discoveries like Gimmelwald back in the late 1970s that I called my “Back Doors.” And these gems were the special destinations upon which I established my business, which back then was called “Europe Through the Back Door.” I’ve noticed that I’m kind of sentimental when I visit now — and when they still tickle my wanderlust, it makes me unspeakably happy.

Good Morning from Gimmelwald

I just had to share this little moment with you from Gimmelwald — a cliff-hanging village high in the Swiss Alps. I’ve been visiting since I was a kid, and its appeal is timeless. Join me from the deck of my B&B as the sun peeks out from behind the peaks.

A Chance to Give Back to a Classic Back Door: Gimmelwald

I always say, “If heaven isn’t what it’s cracked up to be, send me back to Gimmelwald.”

Thirty-five years ago, as a young tour guide, I brought my groups to a remote and impossibly idyllic village high in the Swiss Alps — and I’ve been going back ever since. Gimmelwald is a classic “Back Door”: an off-the-beaten-path place where travelers can get away from soulless resorts and big-time tourism. This is a place where the air feels different — where the only noises are bees, bugs, and birds perusing alpine flowers, paddling water spilling from a hose into the hollowed-out log that keeps the cows watered, and gnome-like men sucking gnome-like pipes while chopping firewood.

I am filled with great memories of this intoxicating place, and I know many of you are, too. And now we all have a chance to give something back. The villagers are working together to save the last public building in Gimmelwald, and they need our help. You can find out more here — and you can pitch in here. (If you do, please let me know in the comments below or on Facebook. It would fill me with joy to see Rick Steves travelers come together to support a special place we all love. Thank you!)

Behind the Scenes: Filming Christmas in Switzerland

To celebrate the season, I’m sharing clips, extras, and behind-the-scenes notes from Rick Steves’ European Christmas. Today we travel to the Swiss Alps, which seem to shout the glory of God. Up here, where villages huddle under towering peaks, Christmas fills a wintry wonderland with good cheer. Traditions are strong and celebration comes with families, friends, and fun. It may be cold outside, but as the sun sets, it’s impossible not to linger in this cozy setting.

Through the seven countries where we filmed our the special, six were snowless. The Swiss Alps were our one last hope for a white Christmas — our worst-case weather scenario backup. I simply had to get snow in the Alps…and just barely did.

My key support person in the fairy-tale village of Gimmelwald was Olle, the village schoolteacher. He had emailed me photos of his beautiful, snow-covered village a month before. But that December was unseasonably warm, and on the days leading up to our arrival, the town was bare and wet. Thankfully, a strong snowfall hit the day we came to town, giving us the white Christmas of our prayers. By the time we were leaving, it was all but melted.

Gimmelwald was a folk festival of Christmas traditions. Olle arranged everything. He planned a sledding expedition to cut down the tree, arranged a cozy fondue in a remote hut, and lit our torches as we skied and sledded back down the mountain into his village. Olle’s parents came by (Grandpa even grew an old-fashioned big white beard for the filming) as they pulled out all the stops to celebrate a traditional Swiss family Christmas Eve…on December 21.

The Alps would also be a great place to rendezvous with my family. (Other holiday shows I’d watched, where the host was without family, seemed almost mournful.) My family flew in for just three days and performed heroically (especially considering the jet lag).

After 15 years of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos in our TV shows, my son Andy got a serious part. This year he was Samichlaus — that’s Swiss German for “St. Nick.” Andy’s sidekick, the black-clad henchman Schmutzli, was Olle’s son, Sven. And the donkey played himself. We filmed Gimmelwald’s children enjoying the annual visit from this dynamic Christmas duo. This year, Schmutzli translated because Samichlaus spoke only English. Ignoring the language barrier, the cute little village children just promised they were nice and not naughty, sang their Swiss Santa a Christmas carol, and eagerly dug into his big burlap bag to get their goodies.

That night we filmed a hot-spiced wine party in the frigid open-air gathering around flaming tree trunks with villagers — one of the coldest evenings I’ve ever experienced. And it didn’t make the show. But it was a delight to play the piano as the family sang (they have the same kind of piano as me… a wonderful German make called Sauter, from the Black Forest). And I just love the shot of Grandpa’s weathered fingers on the dog-eared family Bible — beautiful as a Rembrandt painting, but real and now.

My favorite bit of the entire Christmas special was the joyful sleigh ride with the entire gang frolicking down the mountain with torches. Again, this was a nerve-wracking afternoon and evening, as we had lots of elements to film: tramping around in snowshoes, cutting the tree, having fondue in the mountain hut, and then — just as twilight was upon us — romping down the mountain. The crew ran ahead at intervals, catching us as we frolicked by. I got to ride the comedic wooden snow bicycle, and our laughs and giggles were honest joy. No acting there!

Cutting Hay in Gimmelwald

Climbing through steep fields of freshly cut hay on a sunny late afternoon, and getting to know a local farmer who climbs up and down all day without breathing heavily, gave a new dimension to a Swiss alpine village I’ve been visiting for over 30 years.

Farmer Peter piles hay onto a tarp tacked to the steep hillside by two pitchforks. The village of Gimmelwald was never developed like neighboring towns because its residents made sure it got rated “avalanche zone,” so developers couldn’t get building permits. Consequently, the town’s buildings are generally inhabited by locals all year long, while buildings in nearby towns (like Wengen and Grindelwald) are owned mostly by wealthy big-city folks who come by just a couple of weeks a year. The consequence: There's no real community in the resort towns, while Gimmelwald feels lived-in.

Farmer Peter and his boatload of hay bound down the steep slopes to an awaiting barn — its doors open wide in anticipation.

While I learn my lines, producer Simon Griffith sits in as my “body double” so cameraman Peter Rummel can frame and set up a good shot. Olle, our good friend from the village, stands by — helping as he always does when we come to town. Moments later, I took Simon’s spot and kicked off the third part of our three-part Travel Skills Special with one of my favorite on-camera show openers ever. It was fun because, rather than looking up at dramatic peaks cutting into blue alpine skies, this time we filmed down into a vast and fertile Swiss valley.

Thirty years ago, as a young tour organizer and guide, I kept my groups in the humble Gimmelwald youth hostel. One day I got a note from Walter Mittler, who invited me to the top of his village to tour his pension and to consider bringing my tour groups there. He convinced me, we moved “uptown,” and Walter’s Hotel Mittaghorn became a highlight of our tour groups’ alpine experience for over two decades. I visit Walter, who was born in 1924 and still runs his little hotel, whenever I’m in town. This time when I called him and asked how he’s doing, he said, “Everything still works.”