On this trip to Switzerland, we explore Thun, one of the most beautiful medieval towns in the country and the gateway to the scenic Bernese Oberland. By Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy
Switzerland… the very name invokes images of a romantic holiday in cosy wooden chalets and ski resorts, wildflowers bobbing in alpine meadows, warm fondue and raclette
on wintry evenings, and cows grazing in idyllic pastures—their bells tinkling softly—as farm-fresh milk is crafted into fine chocolate and 450 varieties of cheese. For years, Switzerland has been the gold standard for what a mountain destination should be, with hill stations around the world claiming the epithet, ‘The Switzerland of ….’ Only when you take a trip to Switzerland do you realise that every cliché—picture postcard homes, snowy peaks, and placid lakes the colour of copper sulphate—is actually true.
It’s not hard to see why artists, poets, and writers have always been enchanted by Switzerland. Johanna Spyri set the tales of Heidi in the Swiss countryside. The glaciers, lakes, and mountains inspired Swiss painters like Caspar Wolf, Ferdinanad Hodler, and
Giovanni Giacometti, poet Lord Byron, and writers like Mark Twain. Composer Goethe wrote his poem Song of the Spirits over the Waters after seeing the Staubbach Falls in 1779, while JRR Tolkein based his Lord of the Rings saga of ‘Rivendell’ after a trip to Lauterbrunnen Valley.
India’s love affair with Switzerland is largely credited to director Yash Chopra, who spent his honeymoon there in 1970. Captivated by the heavenly natural beauty, he featured the Swiss meadows and mountains for the first time in his 1985 film Faasle. The saga continued with his 1989 film Chandni and Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge in 1995. Millions were captivated by the landscapes, cobbled streets, and pretty bridges of the Swiss countryside. So much so that Lauenensee, a lake in Canton Bern that served as a prominent locale in the films, was dubbed ‘Yash Chopra Lake’.
For promoting Brand Switzerland, Chopra was given the honorary title of ‘Ambassador of
Interlaken’ on April 8, 2011, and in May 2016, a bronze statue was installed off Interlaken’s main street, Höheweg, near Casino Kursaal, with a silver plaque dedicated to him. Jungfrau Railways even named a train after him, and the Victoria Jungfrau hotel in Interlaken has a special deluxe cinema-themed suite named after Chopra and decorated with Veer Zaara posters.
While Jungfraujoch continues to be the top Swiss destination, there are several pretty nooks overlooked by most vacationers. One such place is the medieval town of Thun. Located on the western edge of Thunersee (Lake Thun) where the River Aare flows out, it was the traditional gateway to the Bernese Alps. With the Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau gleaming with eternal snow across the lake, the picturesque town is crisscrossed with bridges where couples walk hand in hand past hanging flower-baskets, as weeping willows cascade into crystal clear waters.
“Thun is to the Jungfrau region what the overture is to the opera,” exclaimed our guide Elisabeth Mettler at the Bahnhof (train station). “We open the door to the Bernese Oberland, and one can reach the best places to ski and hike—Wengen, Mürren, and Grindelwald—in an hour.” Unlike the financial capital Zürich, the canton of Bern is known for its unhurried approach to life. People love to take things slow and enjoy a coffee or beer at the cafes by the Aare. Stores in the old town often close for lunch, and a leisurely heritage walk is the best way to explore town.
We walked from the station down Othmar-Schoeck-Weg, named after a Swiss composer;
just across the riverbank lay Brahms Quay, named after another famous composer. In fact,
many roads and alleys are named after eminent personalities who spent weeks holidaying in Thun. Constant floods led the city folk to divert the river through a dry moat creating the island of Bälliz, the main shopping district today. Five bridges connect Bälliz to the medieval city centre, and we took the quaint Untere Schleuse (upper flood gate), a covered wooden bridge originally built in 1724. Together with the lower sluice, they regulate the water flow of the River Aare. If all 20 gates are opened, it will lower the lake’s level by 20 centimetres in a day, our guide stated.
The spot where the water gushed out of the sluices was the city’s Surf Point, where surfboarders practised against roiling waves. In July-August, the city’s youngsters line the
riverfront in beachwear, often jumping into the waters to cool off, and Thun looks more like Rio or Hawaii than a typical Swiss town. Around the scenic lake, you’ll find the oldest sailing school of Switzerland and the largest garrison. In the 1830s, the Knechtenhofer brothers laid the foundation for boat excursions on Lake Thun. They ordered an iron steamboat, ‘Bellevue,’ from Paris for their hotel De Bains le Vielle Viel, the first in Thun with tapped water in the rooms. The steamer had an organ that played God Save the Queen!
Grand Hotel Thunerhof, built in 1875, was once the most luxurious address in the Bernese
Oberland and hosted kings, emperors, and czars. Now converted into town offices, its ground floor houses the Kunstmuseum—dedicated to contemporary art with a small coffee shop next door. Our hotel, Freienhof Thun, was one of the earliest inns in the town overlooking the Sinnebrucke Bridge, the oldest river-crossing between Bern and Interlaken. Another former hotel, Beau Rivage, today has the best Italian restaurant in town—Beau Rivage Da Domenico.
Thun is a beautiful old town with charming monuments. We walked past a reddish building—the narrowest in Switzerland, and the Knechtenhofer House, where Napoleon III—nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte—once stayed. At the heart of the town is Mill Square, where yellow outlines mark the spot where the mill once stood. Today, it’s a leisure spot perfect to quaff beer in summer; in winter time, the chairs are draped in wool, fur, and blankets for people to snugly enjoy coffee and hot chocolate.
Thun’s town-square is one of the most beautiful in Switzerland. The Rathaus (Town Hall) dates back to 1500. Back then, there were no banks, and money was kept in the stadt kirche (city church). A theft led to a treasury tower being added in 1585. Former guild houses of bakers and butchers now double up as hotels and restaurants. Walking down Obere Hauptgasse (upper main street), we marvelled at the boutiques along the unique raised pavements in Altstadt (old town), peculiar to Thun. Be it herb shops like Secret Nature or Catlovers, the only dedicated cat shop in Switzerland, there’s a surprise lurking at every corner. At the east end of the cobbled street, a long flight of stairs called Kirchtreppe led up to Thun Schloss (castle).
Lording over the town on Castle Hill, the medieval Thun Schloss was built around 1190 by
Duke Berthold V of Zähringen. We trudged up, pausing for a breath at a pavillion with lovely murals on the ceiling. This fortified hill, dunum in Celtic, gave the town its name. The majestic donjon, or keep, capping the citadel is the city’s famous landmark and hosts the Knights’ Hall, one of the best-preserved and largest surviving Swiss banquet halls of the High Middle Ages. In 1888, a Historical Museum was opened in the castle, and for a while, the jailer was also the ticket-seller and guard for the museum! The medieval castle also houses a restaurant, prison, court, and well with the corner turrets offering 360-degree views over town.
Staying at Hotel Freienhof Thun entitled us to the PanoramaCard (similar to the Zurich Card), which gave us a free Thun city tour and bus rides. At Oberhofen, the lakeside Schloss (castle) was set in a landscaped park with its picturesque lake turret jutting out of the waters. Our visit coincided with the annual Castle Day, and locals in period costumes livened up the proceedings. A tour of the castle, plush chambers, and 19th-century servants’ quarters revealed how nobility and their domestic staff lived. The medieval keep with an oriental smoking lounge was stunning. We headed next to Spiez, with its scenic marina, vineyards, and castle with a Romanesque church on a beautiful peninsula by the lake.
But the highlight was the romantic boat cruise on Lake Thun with BLS Navigation. With special fondue dinners and wine sourced from the vineyards of Spiez, it was a lovely ride past little towns and mountains like the ‘Swiss Pyramid’ Mount Niesen and Stockhorn. We clinked our glasses and gazed at the fiery sunset with the Swiss flag of our vessel ‘Stadt Thun’ fluttering in the breeze. We half expected credits to roll or a director’s voice to yell ‘Cut’.
Fly Swiss from Mumbai to Zürich International Airport. Board an SBB (Swiss Federal Railways) train via Bern (1hr 20 min) to Thun. BLS Navigation runs nine boats on lakes Thun and Brienz. Berner Oberland Bahn (BOB) from Interlaken Ost station provides the first stage of mountain railway routes like Wengernalpbahn (WAB) and Jungfraubahn (JB) to Grindelwald, Lauterbrunnen, Wengen, Kleine Scheidegg, and Europe’s highest station at Jungfraujoch. A three-day Jungfrau VIP pass with unlimited travel costs Rs 16,904 (available from May 1 to Oct 26).
Hotel Freienhof: After the original hotel was burned down, a new one was built in 1958 and renovated in 2006. Great location in the city centre by the river; Double Design Room from
Rs 12,235 – Rs 20,871. Hotel Krone: Located in the main square, the 15th-century guild house of the bakers became an inn in 1821, and has been privately owned since 1852. Today, it’s a charming four-star hotel; Double Standard room from Rs 14,898
Victoria Jungfrau Grand Hotel & Spa: Overlooking the large central park Höhematte and
Jungfrau in the distance, it is easily the best address in town; Doubles from Rs 31,506 – Rs 42,29. Hotel Carlton-Europe: An Art Nouveau hotel with over a century of hospitality. From Jan 1, 2019, it is the first Swiss ‘adults-only hotel’ that accommodates only guests over 16 years; Doubles from Rs 11,365. Zurich Hotel Ni-Mo: Cool boutique hotel in downtown Zürich’s Seefeld district, at walking distance from Lake Zürich’s promenade, Opera House, and famous shopping mile Bahnhofstrasse.
While staying overnight in one of the participating hotels in the Lake Thun region, don’t forget to take the PanoramaCard that offers complimentary rides on city buses and trams—no matter where you stay between Thun and Interlaken, with discounted admission to public pools, castles, museums, nature parks, and a free guided city tour in Thun.