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View of Switzerland From a Tiny Village on High

June 21, 1987|MARY WELTY HUTCHISON | Hutchison is a Scottsdale, Ariz., free-lance writer.

RIEDERALP, Switzerland — What famous person wrote "Mr. Crew's Career," and where was it written?

Everyone living here knows immediately that it was Winston Churchill, so their answers don't count.

A lifelong resident, Edelbert Kummer, told me that. Having met 20 minutes earlier at the Alp Museum here, he was my newest best friend. (Kummer's cousin, Ferdinand Kummer, might have been, but he was busy making cheese the old-fashioned way over an open fire and couldn't leave the museum.) So it was Edelbert who offered to show me around.

We went directly to the mountaintop and the elegant 28-room villa where fledgling author Churchill visited the wealthy English banker, Ernest Cassel. Locked under glass in the drawing room, Kummer arranged for the case to be opened so I could inspect the book published in 1908.

An Ulterior Motive

He also, I discovered, had an ulterior motive in taking me there. He wanted me to see how beautiful Riederalp is from the pinnacle.

But beauty has its problems. The village isn't large enough to rate a dot on the map. Looking closely, what it gets is a sort of smudge. Hunt for Moerel in the Valais region about three miles northeast of Brig, go there by car or train, then take the cable car. When it stops, you're in Riederalp.

But, surprise! There's a wonderful three-star hotel here named for its owner, Art Furrer. Directly in front of the hotel is an unusual attraction for a tiny mountain village, a golf course with fairways dipping through the meadow, running alongside cliffs that jut into thin air.

Big brown cows with wide jangling bells are the most ardent spectators each summer, nabbing all the golf balls that accidentally sail into the pasture.

In the winter, chairlifts and skiers cover the snow-crowned slopes as the golf course and cows temporarily disappear. But it is spring through fall that gives Riederalp its claim to fame. This is the place where people come to walk.

The two outstanding reasons for walking here are the forest preserve and the glacier.

"There was a treaty signed in 1933," Kummer told me, "that keeps the forest as a total preserve. What that means is that everything is protected. Even a rotten tree, if it falls. This is the first nature conservation center in Switzerland."

Leaving the villa behind us, we entered the forest on a narrow, rocky pathway. Going down a mountain is every bit as strenuous as climbing up, I discovered, and to speed my descent Kummer decided to carry my backpack on his chest along with his backpack. "So, do I look like a humpback kangaroo?" he asked, a little embarrassed.

Fairy tales must have been written with this forest in mind. Our path wound through towering pine trees, their branches fluttering overhead like gigantic feather quills. Then we dropped abruptly into a grove of larch trees, deciduous conifers whose leaves turn gold in autumn, then spread a carpet of gold dust.

Through a meadow blazing orange in the sunlight with wild blueberries, ascending a gentle rise and, suddenly, we were face to face with small deer called shamwa. It was a stare-down. "They know we're not allowed to get off the path," Kummer nodded seriously, as we walked by.

On we went, single file for the most part, until we reached a clearing. There, below, stretched the longest ice stream in the Alps, Aletsch Glacier. From that distance it looked like a deserted Chicago expressway after an ice storm.

While it is a favored place to walk, it is not advisable to be alone. In fact, if there is snow on the glacier, which happens most of the year, it is impossible to pick out the dangerous snow bridges. Glacier walking should be done with an experienced guide and with all participants roped together.

Pausing for a Picnic

From our vantage point on a wide flat rock where we paused to picnic, we could watch the hikers inching over the ice. From time to time a portion of these human chains crumpled and fell on the slippery surface.

Kummer often takes his sons walking on the glacier. They are safe with him because he knows where the flowing water melts deep shafts and creates caves. Inside the caves, air currents supply warmth. Ever-changing, it also makes for exciting expeditions.

For me, it was enough just to watch as we lingered over lunch shared from our packs. We had fruit, bread, cheese and wine.

"You know," Kummer mused as we dined, "this glacier was here 10,000 years ago." Letting that point sink in, he raised his glass in tribute. "Here's to the next 10,000!"

-- -- --

The Derby restaurant is in a chalet on top of the Aletsch, where a tasty dish, challera , is a concoction of apples, potatoes, onions and cheese baked in a crockery pot. Bergbahn restaurant has the best value food in the village. Art Furrer Hotel restaurant features beef fondue cooked in beef broth. Nightly musical entertainment for dancing or listening. The village has 13 restaurants.

Villa Cassel is now the Aletschwald Nature Conservation and Study Center, open to the public. Visitors must remove their shoes and wear slippers to protect the beautiful wood floors.

At the Hotel Art Furrer, the rooms are large, with a wall of windows looking out at the Alps. Prices per person, varying with the season, are about $34 to $72, with half-board $48 to $92.50. You can make reservations by writing the hotel in Riederalp, CH-3981, Switzerland.

For more information, contact the Swiss National Tourist Office, 250 Stockton St., San Francisco 94108; telephone (415) 362-2260.

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