If you want to visit Christian Garbani, you better be prepared to hike. That's the only way to get to the top of the Faulhorn, where his hotel is. There is no chairlift, no cableway, no road. This makes the mountain hotel a truly unique place – and running it a true challenge! But more on that in a bit. The Faulhorn is part of the classic hiking trail between Schynige Platte and the summit of First. Everyone seems to agree that this is one of the most beautiful hikes the Bernese Oberland has to offer. It's also quite a hike with a length of 16 kilometres (about 10 miles).
We begin our tour in Wilderswil. A 50-minute ride with the rack railway takes us up to the Schynige Platte. We slowly but steadily chug up the slope. For fans of nostalgic railway travel, the ride with this more-than-a-century-old rack railway is a special treat. We particularly enjoy the fantastic view of the Eiger, Jungfrau and Mönch. Our hike from the mountain station to Christian Garbani's hotel will take about four hours. Thus we only planned a brief visit to the Schynige Platte Alpine Garden, which is home to more than 650 alpine plants! This marvelous collection of the region's fauna is surely worth a trip on its own. But we have other plans today: And so we begin our march up towards the Faulhorn at a steady pace, with only a few steep inclines on our way. The view is simply breathtaking. The first panorama we see from the ridge is the Briezenersee and Thunersee down below. We happen to see a water plane taking off from one of the lakes. From up here it looks like an over-sized water strider.
Leaving our daily hassles behind
We barely talk. Walking this trail is not too physically straining and it's easy to find a pace that allows us to leave the hassles of daily life behind us. As the high fog transforms the landscape into a mystical scene, we spot an ibex, a marmot and a chamois. A few people cross our path. Cherishing mountain tradition, we greet each other with friendly words. And yet we feel – in the most positive sense possible – alone. Perhaps this is because humans seem so small and irrelevant in this stunningly majestic landscape.
The last part of the trail is a bit more challenging than the rest. 19th century chauvinists arrogantly named the Faulhorn summit 'Damengipfel' (Lady Summit) because it supposedly wasn't as strenuous as other hikes, but in fact the trail is actually quite steep at the end. And so we arrive at the hotel catching our breath as we greet Christian Garbani. He is used to the sight of panting guests and believes that this what makes his hotel so charming: "People are so happy to arrive up here. They've achieved something that they don't usually achieve. You can feel it."
It doesn't have to be new to be good
The Faulhorn hotel was built in 1830. It is the oldest mountain hotel in Europe and large parts of the building are preserved in their original state. Christian Garbani, the fourth generation owner, sees his duty in finding a balance between innovation and tradition. "One example: For 180 years there was no way to book by email, so I initially decided to keep it that way," he explains. "Then I read a survey that said the majority of guests want to book by email. Why should I ignore that?"
Running a hotel in such a location sure has its challenges. For example, the only way to bring supplies up on the mountain or bring waste down from the mountain is by helicopter. Water is provided by the hotel’s own reservoir. In today's world a setting with limited resources requires a lot of tact and understanding for uninformed guests. Being a good host means "to be patient with guests who are unfamiliar with the hotel's special conditions," Garbani explains in regard to certain comforts of modern life that guests have to forgo due to the building's unique location and age. For example drinking water from the tap, or WiFi. We try to put ourselves into our guest's shoes and imagine: What does this person need? Can we do anything to cater to this need? If we can't, we have to explain why not. Usually the issue is resolved quite easily." On the contrary, more often than not, the Berghotel Faulhorn's long history and location are what make it so appealing to guests. We are also smitten with the beautiful hotel. It feels as if it was set in another era. The cozy parlor or Stube, the creaking wood floorboards and the paneled walls are all proof that good craftsmanship can endure centuries of use – if it is lovingly cared for. Antique pitchers and washbasins replace modern water taps in the rooms. The surrounding landscape feels so relaxing and soothing that no further luxury is necessary. "Today work is mostly stressful on a psychological level. I guess it's much easier to decompress up here," Garbani muses.
After a visit of about three hours (which also included the spectacle of a helicopter delivering drinks) we say our farewells and head back to the 'real world'. Our descent back to the rack rail station on the First takes one and a half hours. The train leisurely snakes down the mountain towards Bachsee and then along its coast. We know we are back in civilization when the number of selfies taken all around us increases drastically. No wonder, with the backdrop of this breathtakingly beautiful landscape! And in our hearts we know now why the hike we went on today is considered one of the most beautiful in the Bernese Oberland.
Dec. 1, 2016