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Interlaken, alpine gateway, draws thousands

The Jungfrau mountain range above Interlaken.

Interlaken, a town known throughout the world, was once again in the spotlight because of the trial in December 2001 relating to a canyoning accident that took 21 lives.

The town, which attracts more than 300,000 visitors each year, including many who are drawn to extreme sports, is hard to describe.

It is best known as a departure point for the resorts of the Bernese Oberland. Many tourists pass through Interlaken on their way to such alpine destinations as Wengen or Grindelwald.

Most of them spend little time in the town. “Thirty years ago, visitors used to spend a week here,” said Walter Schnyder, one of Interlaken’s station masters, “but now they only want stay two or three days.”

Two types of tourist

The town plays host to two types of tourists, the wealthy, and those without money to burn. Interlaken’s reputation as an extreme sports Mecca has attracted enthusiasts from all over the world, many of them on a tight budget.

These younger tourists tend to gather in the area’s backpacker hostels, a cheap alternative to Interlaken’s 70-odd glitzier and more expensive hotels, saving their money for other thrills.

The other group is made up of tourists from Asia, particularly Japanese, Chinese and more recently, Indians. The latest visitors are attracted by the scenery, which has been frequently used for the hugely popular Bollywood films — mostly Indian love stories with song and dance routines.

Local business has adapted to accommodate the newcomers, with Indian restaurants opening and discrete signs in Hindi appearing in shop windows.

Disappearing Americans

While the Asian business looks healthy, the American tourist trade has dropped off in the last few months. Many conferences organised by US companies in Interlaken for their employees have been cancelled after the September 11 events.

But before the advent of mountain sports, Interlaken was a destination in its own right. From the beginning of the 19th century, English visitors flocked to the town to enjoy the fresh air and its main attraction, a view of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau.

In the 1830s, a travel writer noted that Interlaken was to all intents and purposes an English colony. The locals even voted in 1891 to change the town’s name from Aarmühle to make it easier for visitors to say.

Trade was so good that large hotels such as the Victoria-Jungfrau were built a few years later to accommodate the flow of visitors, giving the town’s architecture an unmistakable Belle Epoque flavour.

Matter of taste

More recent developments linked to the tourist trade have been considered less successful. Fast-food outlets have made their appearance alongside established shops, and bad taste has also become part of the urban landscape.

One store in the ritzier part of town proudly proclaims to be “the last sex shop before the Jungfrau”, while an American sports bar best known for its buxom waitresses is set to open next to one of Interlaken’s five-star hotels.

The town also has a building widely viewed as an eyesore, the hotel Metropole, which was built in the early Seventies.

The mayor at the time apparently had the plans approved, but paid the price when the locals found out. “The official lost his job at the next election, but Interlaken was stuck with a very tall building,” said Susan Huber, a guide from the tourism office.

Incomparable setting

The tower has one redeeming feature though, an unbeatable vantage point from which to see the town and its surroundings.

For a town – in fact officially a village – with a population of just over 5,600 inhabitants, Interlaken is spread far and wide. It’s big enough to warrant two railway stations, one in the west, and one in the east.

The town is centred around a large, open expanse of green grass, the Höhematte, on which nothing can be built. It’s from there that one gets the best view of the Oberland.

To the east, you find the old monastery, where it all started. The Augustinian convent, founded in 1130, was the main player in the region for much of its three-and-a-half century existence.

Beyond its spiritual role, the monastery quickly increased its secular power, acquiring property over a large area. The monks also apparently enjoyed more earthly pleasures too.

Local lore says that one nearby village was founded to house the illegitimate children of the men of the cloth. Evidence is apparently that nearly everyone in the said village shares the same family name.

Running amonk

Another tale tells of a monk who came across a beautiful blonde while climbing the Harder Kulm mountain behind Interlaken. His thoughts were anything but pure, and as divine punishment, he immediately fell to his death.

Visitors to the town can still see his face carved into the rock. “He looks a bit like Prince Charles,” said Huber. “If he thinks the locals are misbehaving, he sends down the occasional rockslide.”

Whether the tales have any truth to them remains to be proven, but pope Innocent VIII did shut down the monastery for immoral behaviour in 1484 after an inspection.

Nearby is another of Interlaken’s attractions for foreign visitors, the town’s small casino. The establishment is set to increase its size though after the Swiss government recently awarded it a new licence.

Roulette, too

“We expect to add five or six roulette tables within the next few months,” said Adrian Wenger, a shift manager at the casino. “If all goes well, the company will build a new establishment in five years or so.”

The casino is housed for the time being in one of the wings of the old health centre, an ancestor of today’s fat farms. At the time, the treatments offered there was one of Interlaken’s attractions.

A visitor doesn’t have to spend a lot of money to enjoy the town, though. If you are prepared to leave the souvenir shops behind, a path along the Aare River that flows through Interlaken, connecting the lakes of Thun and Brienz, offers a pleasant stroll.

A few minutes’ walk across the river will take the visitor to the small village of Unterseen, a well-preserved late medieval town that contrasts with the 19th century architecture of Interlaken. In summer, it’s a favourite daytrip destination for the Bernese.

And for those who want to learn about the history of the region’s tourist trade, a small museum is open on Unterseen’s main square for much of the year. This remains perhaps the best way of discovering the importance of tourism for the Interlaken area.

by Scott Capper

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR