Where Goethe left his mark. With author Jürgen Pachtenfels on a tour of Goethe’s Bernese Oberland.
In his book “Ferne Berge im Sonnenschein” (Distant mountains in the sunshine), Jürgen Pachtenfels follows in the footsteps of Goethe’s second trip to Switzerland through the Bernese Oberland in October 1779. He makes amusing comparisons between days past and present, revealing some of the poet’s unknown sides.
The Bernese Oberland refers to the Alpine region of the Canton of Bern. This includes the lakes of Thun and Brienz and the famous Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau mountains.
“Goethe was practically my co-worker.”
We set off through the Bernese Oberland with author Jürgen Pachtenfels and his wife Madeleine. We will now hand over to Jürgen Pachtenfels himself.
“Goethe used to be lauded as a kind of god in grammar school, which meant that we had to study his literature very closely. After my studies, I worked as an administrative lawyer, senior civil servant and headed a government agency in the state government of Schleswig-Holstein. Goethe himself was a minister in the state government of the Duchy of Thuringia.”
When nobility seeks adventure
Goethe’s travel group met on 8 October 1779 in Bern – on horseback no less. In those days, Switzerland was anything but a tourist paradise, with no public transport or network of signposted hiking trails.
Karl August, Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, his friend Senior Ranger von Wedel, and Goethe’s secretary Seidel accompanied Goethe on his adventurous trip.
Where nature calls the shots
The ascent to Grosser Scheidegg proved to be risky and strenuous. The oncoming winter had Goethe’s Weimar travel group shivering with cold and made clear to them just what dangers the winter could bring.
Goethe and his secretary Seidel then found themselves separated from the group. Nobody knows how long they were missing. But Goethe and Seidel luckily found their way back to the group.
Where water plays the main role
From the Zwirgi vantage point, Goethe and his travel group were treated to magnificent, sweeping views that stretched all the way down into Haslital and Meiringen. Today, visitors can enjoy the views while feasting on a typical Meiringen meringue on the terrace of Gasthaus Zwirgi.
Below this viewing platform, Reichenbach Falls thunder over seven rocks down into the depths. The meltwater comes from the Rosenlaui Glacier and makes its way through the imposing Rosenlaui Gorge, where rock faces tower up to 80 metres.
Where mountains are addictive
Goethe’s travel group climbed the Obersteinberg, which they found to be a difficult and dangerous mountain tour, with some of them breaking off their journey prematurely to return to Lauterbrunnen. Goethe admitted that the trail had been hard going. Battling against the rain and early nightfall, and with the sound of avalanches roaring in the distance, the hikers finally made their way back to Lauterbrunnen during the night. But Goethe didn’t grant himself a day’s rest after the return journey either. Things continued in the same vein the next day.
One of the main reasons for his restlessness was his many female acquaintances (they simply overwhelmed him). He thus tried to escape them, knowing that he would find peace and solace in the Swiss mountains. In his notes, Goethe made several mentions of this as being the reason that had prompted him to embark on his second trip to Switzerland. He also referenced this in some of the poems he wrote at the time.
Goethe and his noble travel group hurried tirelessly through the mountains, leaving themselves no time to take in the many sights around them. This was the reason for Seidel’s paucity of notes.
“We were on Schwarzwaldalp at 1 p.m., from which you can see the Wellhorn, Wetterhorn and Engelhorn on the right. The weather was bright. We ate what we had brought with the farmers.”
Finding a soft bed back then was no easy feat
This sophisticated travel group found it difficult to find fitting accommodation in 1779. The hotel and gastronomy industry at that time were only just being established in this area and there were hardly any rooms to be found, never mind decent accommodation. This was in contrast to larger places and towns where guest houses were already offering such rooms. However, bailiffs, judges and ministers proved to be excellent hosts out in the countryside and enjoyed an excellent reputation. “The rectories in Lauterbrunnen and Grindelwald in the Bernese Oberland were especially lauded in early travel guides.”*
*Source: Dr Roland Flückiger-Seiler, “Tourismus- und Hotelgeschichte im Berner Oberland”
For this reason, Goethe’s travel group seemed to have had problems finding reasonably pleasant accommodation in a lot of places. Often, there was no accommodation to be found anywhere. Goethe’s and Seidel’s notes fail to address this subject in some cases, which is why nobody really knows where they spent the night at times. But Goethe wasn’t here to overnight in style, but to climb the glaciers in the region.
Today, you can spend the night on Schwarzwaldalp and enjoy delicious cuisine.
Where craftsmanship spans more than 380 years
A cheese storehouse stands on Schwarzwaldalp that dates back to 1637. When Goethe walked past this very building on his hike into Haslital, it was already 142 years old. In his haste, Goethe made the following note about it: “These cheese storehouses stand on a wooden base, a few feet above the ground, so that dry air can flow underneath.”
On the subject of the building: Ballenberg Open-Air Museum is home to more than 100 original historical buildings from all parts of Switzerland. Although the museum didn’t yet exist in Goethe’s day, a lot of the buildings exhibited in it today are several hundred years old.
Even back in those days, it was a popular custom for foreigners to watch cheese being made on an alp. But Goethe’s travel group hurried on further and chose not to look into the subject of cheese in any detail.
This was why Goethe’s assumption about the space between the ground and the cheese storehouse wasn't entirely correct. The main reason why cheese storehouses were built on stilts was not to allow the wind to blow through beneath, but to make it difficult for rats and mice to climb up into them.