The Road to the Misty Mountains and beyond - Alpenwild tour 'In the footsteps of Tolkien', October 12th – 20th 2013 (04.11.13 by Alex Lewis) -
It is rare that something like a tour gives one a fresh perspective on Tolkien, but this was such an occasion. I was asked last year to provide information to a writer on Tolkien’s 1911 visit to Switzerland, which I did – and was then asked if I would like to accompany the tour as a Tolkien expert. Given that we were in the midst of writing our biography of Tolkien, the opportunity to visit somewhere that Tolkien had gone and which had clearly influenced him was not one to pass up.
The tour might at first thought seem an expensive way to do this. But when you work out that Switzerland is an expensive place to visit – accommodation and travel are not cheap, and neither are meals - then adding up the fact that you stay in 4 star hotels, and have breakfast and dinner included, and travel in first class trains everywhere, it soon adds up to being a very smart way to take the tour in.
As well as this, the tour guide is Greg Witt, a man with great experience of climbing and hiking and of Switzerland and who knows his way around the country as he has three decades of experience visiting and living there. His expertise was invaluable, his amiability delightful, and he made the whole tour very enjoyable and it all ran very smoothly indeed. I added Tolkien-related commentary all the way along.
You could in theory do this kind of tour without the guidance of Alpenwild, but you would spend much of your time nose deep in timetables and looking for places – and it would likely not cost you very much less in the end. Also the lack of stress – because someone else is looking after the logistics – means you can concentrate on what you are there for: looking at the amazing scenery.
To the tour – from Zurich we took a train to Interlaken, and mountain country. The Bernese Alps are stunning. To see them in a movie or documentary, or in photos, is one thing – to be there in person, that is quite breath-taking.
To say we were all mightily impressed would be to short-change it. What then would Tolkien have made of it? Imagine that all those on the 2013 tour were well-travelled individuals, and we had come from places in the world that are relatively clean and in environmentally reasonable state. Now imagine Tolkien’s Britain in 1911. Birmingham was smoky and dirty, with a great deal of industry. Even Oxford where he came up to after this trip was a city of black buildings – and rolling smog that came in from London for two thirds of the year. He came overland by train from Ostende – mostly through industrialised Europe – until he reached Innsbruk in Austria, and from there by train and on foot they made their way to Interlaken on into the mountains. The change must have been extreme. To see suddenly these pristine mountains and Alps (the Swiss name for the high meadows that are used as summer pasture for their cows), clear rivers and waterfalls, forests of pine and larch, he would have imagined himself in some kind of paradise on earth. Notions of Valinor and Tol Eressea would be natural enough to imagine – and perhaps the seeds for them were planted in that place in 1911.
A more solid connection to Tolkien’s fiction comes with St. Beatus cave – which is above the lake at Interlaken. Here an Irish monk came and legendarily drove out a fire breathing dragon from the caverns and exorcised it, and it perished in the waters of the lake. The dragon had been guarding treasure. Smaug perhaps?
The cavern complex is 12 kms long and was a tourist site back in 1911, so Tolkien and his friends could easily have visited it as it was on their route. The visitor centre building at the entrance to the cavern – from which a fast stream issues, much as the River Running does from the Lonely Mountain – looks familiar to any fans who have seen The Fellowship of the Ring movie directed by Peter Jackson, as it bears striking similarity to the Last Homely House in Rivendell. This may be no surprise when one realises that John Howe one of the concept artists on the Lord of the Rings movies, although being Canadian, lives in Switzerland.
Tolkien himself tells us that the Silberhorn is his Celebdil or Silvertine – and the three peaks of the Jungfrau, Silberhorn and Rottalhorn are a trio that could well have inspired him to imagine his own three peaks in the Misty Mountains: Barazimbar, Zirakzigil and Bundushathur which sat above Khazad Dum. The tour visited the Jungfraujoch, and we came higher up than Tolkien could have done, as the final stage of the railway was completed in 1912. But he and his friends would most likely have gone to the second level as it was all open with trains running as far as they could go.
Then there is the Lauterbrunnen valley – it has been cited as being the inspiration for the valley of Rivendell, and when you reach it, you can immediately see why. It has 72 waterfalls that run into it and it resembles Tolkien’s own watercolour from The Hobbit, as well as many features that remind one of Ted Nasmith’s famous painting of Rivendell which has been on the cover of The Hobbit as well as in a calendar.
The hidden waterfalls of the Trümmelbach which are to be accessed from the valley seem to suggest a connection with the hidden entrance to Gondolin – of which more will be explained in our forthcoming book.
From there the village of Mürren is said to resemble Tolkien’s sketch of Dunharrow – for me it was a charming and interesting place with spectacular views. One comes to Grindelwald, overlooked by the Eiger or Ogre. Grindelwald has the ‘wald’ element which means wood or forest, but the first part is obscure – could perhaps Tolkien have considered it to be a corruption of Grendel? If so, then Grendel’s wood overlooked by the ogre might be an attractive back-story to the story of Beowulf, perhaps.
And high up on the upper flanks of the North Face of the Eiger sits – the White Spider. Heinrich Harrer who was the first man to scale the North Face in 1938 called his book of the climb The White Spider. A gigantic spider on the top of a mountain waiting to capture any climber foolish enough to come to her lair – do we have the beginnings of Shelob and the pass at Cirith Ungol? It is tempting to think so.
Going over the Grosse Scheidegg to Meiringen – the route Tolkien and his friends walked over – brings breathtaking views of the Wetterhorn, or weather-mountain. It is so large that it has its own weather systems. We saw the only hotel on that pass which has been there since the 19th century – unfortunately the owners did not have guest books from 1911 to look for any of the walking party incase they had signed it.
Meiringen in its lovely valley is reached via the Reichenbach Falls, made famous by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in Sherlock Holmes The Final Solution, where Moriarty and Holmes seemingly fall to their deaths in 1891. The tour stayed at the hotel known as the ‘Englischer Hoff’, from which Holmes and Watson set out for the falls in the story, a wonderful Art Nouveau style hotel. With 12 people in Tolkien’s walking party, was there no one who was a fan of Sherlock Holmes? We feel it is very likely. We walked down past the falls and saw the bronze plaque that commemorates the fictional event – very much in the footsteps of Tolkien, for that is the only sensible marked path down to the town below.
The gorge of the Aare above Meiringen is a stunning geological formation, with a fast flowing river plunging through the twisting gorge over rapids and along sheer sided tall cliffs with no bank on either side for much of the way. The walkway was opened in 1888 and was in Tolkien’s time more extensive than it is today. I saw inspiration for the Anduin and the rapids of Sarn Gebir as well as the passage past the Argonath down the gorge in that place.
The tour went to Thun castle and then on to Zermatt – which is overlooked by the Matterhorn. This mountain has been copied and photographed countless times, but to see it for real is a revelation. Tolkien and his friends went up the cog train railway to the observation place at the top, and so did we.
The views are superb, but for me the most intriguing thing was the station below the topmost one, where one can walk down to the Riffelsee, a clear lake in which all is perfectly reflected ahead of you, and so you see a lovely reflection of the Matterhorn. But you cannot see your own reflection in the waters. Is this the inspiration for Mirrormere? I would like to think so. It has a magical ambience to it, one that I am sure Tolkien would not have easily forgotten – it is etched in my memory.
This tour did not take the route over the Grimsell Pass and on to the Aletsch glacier which Tolkien and the others walked to. We went instead by the Glacier Express from Zermatt to the city of Chur, from where we were able to travel the short distance to Jenin where the Greisinger Museum is situated.
Our final day was spent on a tour of this impressive museum with its extensive collection of over 600 original paintings, a replica smial, four thousand rare books and collectables.
Outside New Zealand, where are you going to walk into a replica of a smial? It was a wonderful way to round off what had been a truly immersive experience.
The best part of it all was that we were all Tolkien enthusiasts and could point out things of interest to one another and share in the excitement of finding inspiration for Middle earth right in front of our eyes.
What did we learn from the trip?
Firstly that Tolkien did not go to Switzerland in 1911 for a couple of weeks for a quick hike as I had originally imagined it to be. The distances involved and the fact that they walked much of the way with heavy packs, slept where they could find accommodation and cooked for themselves means that it had to be a whole summer’s venture – at least 2 months. For example the distance from Interlaken to Meiringen over the Grosse Scheidegg is marked as 50 kilometres, but that is up to the shoulder at over 6000 feet and then down again. Slow going and probably four days worth of travel alone.
We could also see for ourselves the amazing landscapes that went into the Misty Mountains and the surrounding regions in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings opening right there before our feet. The Road to the Misty Mountains is still there – and with Alpenwild’s expert assistance, it is possible for you to be swept off your feet and taken there too. It is an experience of a lifetime, and one worth indulging in if you possibly can. Alongside a tour of the sites in New Zealand, I can think of nowhere more interesting to travel to abroad that is so closely connected to Tolkien. And in Switzerland, the connection is historical, not just from the movies.
There are two tours planned for 2014 – in June and October. The 2014 tours will stick closer to Tolkien’s route, going over the Grimsell Pass and to the Aletsch Glacier. See the Alpenwild website for more details of the itineries.