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Interlaken: tourist paradise at the foot of the Alps

Fleur Ilott is spoiled for choice for a souvenir cow.

(Dale Bechtel)

The first sentence about Interlaken in "The Rough Guide to Switzerland" says it all: "Don't be ashamed of being a tourist in Interlaken - that's what the place exists for."

Interlaken has been firmly on the tourist map since the English invented mass tourism in the Alps in the 19th century and the town became one of their first destinations of choice. It was from here that they started their trips up to the majestic peaks of the Bernese Oberland.

Even though resorts today are found in the remotest of Swiss valleys and close to the highest peaks, Interlaken is still booming. It's the only place many young English-speaking travellers dare get out of the train.

"We'd heard so much about Interlaken. When we were in Rome we caught up with people who had visited Interlaken and the region and they said it was the most beautiful area and we would be crazy to miss it," says Fleur Ilott.

Fleur is on a two-month grand tour of Europe, and Interlaken has now taken its place beside Paris, Rome and Florence in her travel diary.

"I've never seen snow-peaked mountains and a small village like this before," she says. "I went for a walk today and saw cows with bells around their necks; you think that's only in story books.

"You can walk the streets and come upon rabbits and ducks in the backyards and see tiny places with flowers pouring out of their window sills."

Interlaken is hardly a "small village", and hasn't been since the hotel boom and the coming of the railway in the late 19th century. But the resort knows how to sell the postcard image of Switzerland better than any other place.

And sell it does: mountain railway excursions, adventure sports, and Swiss-made souvenirs of all shapes, sizes and prices.

For tourists like Fleur, a trip into the mountains, a boat ride on the lake, or a river rafting adventure, can all be packed into a couple of days. And no self-respecting tourist would leave Interlaken without a souvenir to remind them of their time in the country.

"I'm looking for a Swatch watch and a couple of Swiss army knives," says Fleur. "I'm buying one for my Dad and one for myself. I might get a big one for Dad; one with everything on it."

The range of army knives is staggering. Some of the latest models are equipped with blades that perform tracheotomies, and tools for fixing computers and repairing golfers' divets. They're all Swiss made and Interlaken knows how to sell them.

An equally wide variety of cuckoo clocks hang from the walls of many shops. Fleur moves the hands on one into the 12 o'clock position. "I wonder if it cuckoos? They're quite cute, but I won't buy one," she says. "This one even has a pine tree on it, made out of pipe cleaner, and a dove on top going up and down. It's supposed to be a cuckoo!"

The cuckoo clock motifs, from the chalet to the folk costumes on the figurines, couldn't be more Swiss. But the cuckoo clocks themselves are traditionally made in Germany's Black Forest region and the expensive ones are still imported from there and sold by the shops in Interlaken to a largely unsuspecting clientele.

The cuckoo, or dove, doesn't impress Fleur. She continues her search for a couple of knives and a watch. She is shown a selection of knives and "army watches" by a salesman who is originally from Paris.

Besides French, he speaks English and Japanese and a smattering of other European languages, but not German, the official language of Interlaken.

Fleur talks to a host of other salespeople during her souvenir hunt: there's an English woman who's been in Switzerland for 16 years and shows her the "real Swiss army knife used by Swiss soldiers".

There's the woman with the best selection of Swatch watches. She's from France and is one of the few non-Japanese working in the shop. She shows Fleur a Swatch designed for people like her. It comes with several interchangeable faces, each with euro exchange rates based on the currency of the traveller's current destination.

Switzerland, because it isn't part of the euro zone, isn't represented on the watch. No matter, the model is a big seller in Interlaken.

In the end, Fleur goes for a more classic Swatch design. She also finds the right knife for her Dad - one without all the attachments, an assortment of ornamental cowbells and wooden knickknacks, a pen complete with a miniature paddle steamer in the casing, and a couple boxes of chocolate.

In her eyes, three days in Interlaken gave her the chance to see Switzerland. "I had no idea that there would be rivers running through it, and that the mountains would be so high. It's absolutely beautiful!"

Thanks to Interlaken, she has the souvenirs to prove it.

by Dale Bechtel


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