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Gimmelwald is as Swiss as apple pie

Not the Ritz - but Gimmelwald's hostel is many Americans home in an alpine idyll

(swissinfo.ch)

There are not many places in Switzerland that Americans know better than the Swiss. Gimmelwald is one of them.

American travellers started a quiet invasion of the sleepy alpine hamlet years ago followed by other English-speaking tourists. But Gimmelwald has remained unspoilt, and the locals want to keep it that way.

Strolling along Gimmelwald's main road, which is closed to motorised traffic, Olle Eggimann steps into a shed housing a few goats and calves.

Eggimann is a schoolteacher and runs a bed and breakfast establishment with his wife.

He estimates that there are about 130 cows and goats in Gimmelwald, equalling the number of inhabitants.

Tourist influx

The idyllic picture changes in the peak summer months when, Eggimann says, tourists - mainly from the United States - outnumber the locals two-to-one.

Still, Eggimann adds, Gimmelwald is not overrun by tourists like many neighbouring resorts in the Bernese Oberland - Mürren, Wengen and Grindelwald among them.

"There hasn't been a hotel building boom which would make us feel like strangers in our own village," he says.

Gimmelwald was "discovered" by the American travel writer, Rick Steves, in the 1980s.

The success of his travel books and his guided tours put Gimmelwald firmly on the itinerary of Americans travelling through Europe.

Yet the locals have been successful in keeping Gimmelwald's popularity in check.

Seeing what has happened elsewhere, they have stymied plans by outsiders to develop it as a holiday resort for mass tourism.

Instead, Gimmelwald has a sprinkling of rooms in quaint inns, apartments, bed and breakfast accommodation and a youth hostel.

Rooms with a view

Perched on a steep incline high above the Lauterbrunnen Valley, every room in the hamlet, it can be claimed, has a view - across to the dramatic glaciated peaks rising steeply above the valley.

"We don't have much to offer - only nature," says Petra Brunner, who runs Gimmelwald's Mountain Hostel.

"Tourists come for the peace and quiet," she says. She believes a stop in Gimmelwald is a chance for many young backpackers to see for the first time a starry sky without bright city lights getting in the way.

The hostel is the cheapest place to stay in Gimmelwald at SFr20 a night, but a room anywhere else in the hamlet isn't much more expensive.

Walter Mittler, an elderly man and local legend who owns and runs the Hotel Mittaghorn - known by his American guests simply as Walter's - charges about twice that for a bed in a double room.

Writers and astronauts

Mittler does all the cooking and cleaning himself, and over the years has put up everyone from Steves to American astronauts.

While Steves claims that Gimmelwald is off the beaten track, or a "back door" location as he calls it, the hamlet is not out of the way.

It benefits from its proximity to some of the key natural sites in the Bernese Oberland and shares a cable car with the much bigger resort of Mürren, located a little higher up the mountainside.

It is understandable that property developers would want to buy land here. Locals and visitors alike are glad they have not.

The backpackers who come for a night and end up staying much longer congregate round the hostel's billiard table drinking beer in the evening for want of something better to do.

Many of them, spoiled with the material things of life, find Gimmelwald provides them something money can't buy.

"It's the solitude of the place and the surroundings," says one Canadian visitor.

"We're studying in a city and we just wanted to come out into nature and get away from all the hustle and bustle and breath the fresh air and enjoy the mountains," adds an American student.

Home-baked

There are no souvenir shops in Gimmelwald, but many people sell farm fresh goods, or, in the case of the Eggimann family, home-baked cakes.

Made by one of the Eggimann children, the family does a brisk business with passing tourists.

It's as commercial as things get in Gimmelwald. For Eggimann, the interaction between tourists and locals benefits both.

"In the past few years, several Americans have volunteered to work as farmhands here," he explains.

"They spent the whole summer, or even two summers [working]. It's given the tourists a new outlook on life, and it's helped the farmers broaden their minds. It's a give and take relationship."

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel

Key facts

About 130 inhabitants and as many cows and goats live in Gimmelwald.
The village is located in Lauterbrunnen Valley just below the resort of Mürren.

end of infobox

In brief

In the 1980s, an American travel writer brought Gimmelwald to the attention of American travellers in Europe.

Americans still account for the lion's share of tourists in Gimmelwald, but travellers from other English-speaking countries are closing rank.

Despite its potential, the people in the hamlet have stymied plans by developers to turn the place into a resort for mass tourism.

end of infobox


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