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Switzerland : A view from the top


MURREN, Switzerland — Slowly the funicular began its ascent from the Lauterbrunnen Valley, inching up a grade so precipitous that even a mountain goat would find the footing precarious. While sunlight flashed through evergreens, the cable car strained with its load of passengers, en route to a village unlike any other in Switzerland. Or was it, I wondered, just a romantic notion that haunted my memory, the sentimental reflection of another visit years earlier to a magical place.

It had been a peaceful world of verdant meadows and wildflowers spread beneath summer skies, and, later, snow-covered peaks as winter performed for vacationers in search of serenity.

At the halfway point on this short journey, another car passed, descending to the valley below. The funicular moved steadily toward its destination, swaying occasionally, its windows framing scenes that belonged on post cards. Or perhaps the canvas of a Van Gogh or a Monet.

The air grew thin and pure and refreshing, and cirrus clouds stretched across the heavens like chalk on a blue background. At Grutschalp, a mile-high station, passengers boarded a narrow-gauge train for the final journey to Murren.

Later, as Murren came into focus, it occurred to me that this could be a mistake, searching out memories, impressions that burned deep. Might it be best to keep such recollections locked securely in the mind and not tamper with the passing of time?

Some dreams are best left undisturbed.

At 5,450 feet, Murren rests on a sheltered plateau in the Bernese Oberland, facing the peaks of the Eiger, the Monch and the Jungfrau. Although barely a couple of hours by train from Bern, it was, as I recalled, a world divorced from the frantic pace of other destinations, a village without cars, crime or pollution, a village mantled by snow in winter, its lovely meadows alive with wildflowers in summer.

As the train drew to a halt, passengers scattered and old scenes took shape. The rail station was as I had remembered it, and just a stroll away the Hotel Eiger still faced the magnificent Alpine peak for which it is named, as well as the Monch and the Jungfrau. Couples were dining on its terrace, studying this village where time has taken a long holiday.

The narrow street twisting through Murren was unchanged; chalets lined each side, geraniums flowing from flower boxes while other blooms spilled from vintage wine barrels and hollowed-out logs.

I stopped to visit with the village butcher, Andreas Feuz, who confided that the population of Murren had shrunk in the years since my earlier visit, from 503 to 320 souls. "The children grow restless and they leave."

Unless one is a shopkeeper or a farmer or becomes involved in the winter sports programs, employment in Murren is scarce, which is a blessing of sorts for a village that remains a fantasy in the minds of those who daydream of a world without stress.

The market operated by Herr Feuz has been in his family for nearly a century--and he has no intention of leaving Murren, where contentment was the gift of his birth.

A few doors away, Frieda von Almen, a 78-year-old widow, occupies Murren's oldest house, a chalet-style dwelling that dates from 1660, its yard a showplace of spring and summer flowers and a scene during winter that features a snow-banked rail fence.

If one is enchanted by peaceful meadows, the melody of cowbells and waterfalls and picture-post-card peaks, the memory of Murren won't be easily forgotten. Of a morning, the residents hike off to the baker's for apple strudel and Linzer tortes and to exchange bits of gossip. The baker's is, indeed, a cozy spot for one of those days when snowflakes drift outside.

I asked a farmer how long he'd lived in Murren and he shrugged and replied: "Why, always. Yes, all my life."

Rosa Affentranger, who operates the Hotel Edelweiss, smiled and gave the same reply: "Always."

Although the operator of a craft shop near the Hotel Blumental arrived in Murren 25 years ago, those born here still consider him a newcomer. Family roots run deep in this little Alpine village.

For the most part, families have been here for generations, so there's a cohesiveness and a caring for neighbors that those who arrive from the cities find refreshing. No one can recall a serious crime, ever, and there's not a policeman in the entire village.

In autumn, before the snows fell, I chose Murren because I was searching for a quiet and gentle place to unwind. I wasn't disappointed.

Although Murren had a scattering of houses as far back as the 1600s, it wasn't discovered as a holiday retreat until late in the 19th Century, when vacationers arrived by horseback from the village of Lauterbrunnen in the valley below, following a treacherous path over which women frequently were lifted by sedan chair.

First came the British. By 1910, Sir Henry Lunn had opened the Palace Hotel, and European nobility began an invasion. Later, Sir Henry's son introduced world-championship skiing, and Murren became the cradle of Alpine racing.

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