Interlaken, Switzerland – A Brisk Evening

The top of the evening at brisk and bracing Interlaken is certainly ten o’clock. Vigorous, vitalizing air breathes down on the lush meadows from towering Alpine snowfields, and languor and ennui fall away from her dispirited summer idlers and a refreshing life interest reasserts itself. It is then one may see the deep, flowered lawns that front the great hotels of the broad Iloheweg pleasantly thronged with animated guests, modishly and immaculately groomed; and each little street and quiet lane has its quota of vivacious strollers who prefer the keen night air and the inspiring mountain-prospect to the conventional attractions of the brilliant Kursaal or the round of mild social diversions that is in progress in the hotel apartments. Then, too, there is a certain subdued note of expectancy in the air, for this is the little village’s fete hour; and almost as the valley clocks are striking the hour the celebration is heralded with a burst of rockets from the open field of the Hohenmatte, in the centre of the town, and there is a general rush of chattering guests to see the display and to exhibit prodigious approval. All are aware of the fact that this is merely an expression, in terms of Swiss thrift, of the appreciation the seventy-five hundred villagers feel for the lucrative presence of thousands of guests, and yet it admirably serves as a mid-break in the evening’s diversions. There is little enough to the celebration, to be sure, excepting the exaggerated importance such an event always assumes to isolated summer people, but you would think it was a pyrotechnic marvel, to judge by the enthusiasm.

To see Interlaken then is to behold her at her gayest. Bridge-parties forsake their cards, late diners their ices, and billiardists their cues. Each little balcony on the hotel fronts is promptly crowded, orchestras strike up lively Strauss waltzes, troops of delighted guests hurry across the Hoheweg and pour into the meadow, until one might fairly conclude there was a carnival on, from the overflow of laughter and merrymaking. It is always a great moment at the Kursaal. There the excitement seekers have been wandering from parlors to lounging-rooms and ending up in the cheery gaminghall, where a toy train on a long green table darts around a little track, laden with the francs and merry hopes of modest challengers of fortune, and comes to an exciting and leisurely stop before some station with the name of a European capital. Just then, like as not, as the croupier begins raking in the scattered piles of silver and the losers are being gleefully accosted by their friends, somebody suddenly shouts “Fireworks!” and forthwith all run hurrahing into the gardens and cry out like summer children in vast delight over the rockets that go hurtling skyward from the Hohenmatte. It is all quite of the nature of a very elegant international fete to which the Old World and the New have accredited their most recherche representatives.

There is seldom a lack of keen activity at Interlaken, but at this hour it is most abounding; nor will the new arrival fail to note the contrast between the sharp alertness of this company and the lethargic listlessness that depresses, for instance, the bored idlers who bask in the dusty olive gardens of the Riviera. In the intermittent glow of the fireworks, cottages and distant hotels spring out of the surrounding darkness. The top of a hillside sanatorium appears of a sudden white against the dark pines, the packsaddle roof of the church tower discovers itself, a turret shows with the red field and white Greek cross of the Swiss flag lazily unfolding above it, and one looks anxiously for just one glimpse of the old cloister’s round towers and cone-shaped roofs that reminded Longfellow of “tall tapers with extinguishers.” Music drifts down from remote cafes and pavilions nestling in wooded nooks. The air is heady and buoyant with the scent of pine and fir. Life seems at high tide; and then just as suddenly it is all over, and the gay company resumes its interrupted activities with infinite laughter and handclapping.

There is a positive spell to all this Alpine comedy.

No new arrival will feel inclined to return at once to hotel conventionalities, with a soft purple mist shrouding the Lauterbrunnen Valley, and the distant Jungfrau lying pallid and wan in the moonlight. He will gaze about him in wonder at the snow-crowned peaks that hem in the little Bodeli plain where Interlaken snuggles, and will feel how wonderful it is that the boisterous Lutschine and its fellow torrents could ever have filled in this alluvial barrier between the deep lakes that fought them inch by inch. He will think of the enchanted regions of the Bernese Oberland that lie just before him, and of the contrasting beauty of the inland seas that stretch away on either hand: Lake Brienz, mysterious and austere, scowling at its precipitous mountain shores, roaring welcomes to its thundering waterfalls, and begrudging standing-room for the tiniest of hamlets;’ Lake Thun, “the Riviera of Switzerland,” with lovely vistas of green meadows, chateaux-dotted hillsides and distant snowy summits, all breathing such mildness and serenity as befitted the former abode of the holy hermit of St. Beatenberg. And doubtless he will seek out some tree-embowered path that winds along the Aare, and there indulge in contemplative thought of this glittering blue link between the lakes. Nor could he do better, for this arrogant stream is an illustrious instance of a reformed rake. Of evil repute for riotous cascade and brawling torrent all the way up to its home by the Grimsel Pass, it responds to the touch of civilization at Interlaken and meekly accepts the bondage of steam for the remainder of its career. What a gratifying example of reform it presents as it proceeds demurely along from this scene of moral crisis, laving thankful little towns, reporting conscientiously to the proper authorities at Bern, and, after an exhibition review-sweep around the capital, flowing sweetly on to Waldshut and modestly laying down its burden on the broad bosom of the Rhine. The stranger will perceive that virtue has its rewards, with rivers as with humans, when he takes note of the extravagant petting and eulogy that has followed the repentance of the Aare at Interlaken, its adornment with promenades, gardens, and artistic bridges, and the choice of much excellent society, particularly at night, on the part of ruminating savants and romantic lovers of all ages.

Strolling along the river paths carpeted with sweetscented pine needles, the delighted new arrival has only to lift his eyes to discover how picturesquely the little city lies in its bed of lush and fertile meadows. It will seem to him like a great stage set for a mammoth spectacle. For background there is the black and flinty Harder, set with the grim rock face of the scowling Hardermannli, rugged in boulders and sheer cliffs and hiding its base in treacherous, grassy slopes; the Aare, skirts it fearfully, and the pretty little cottages of Unterseen shrink close to Lake Thun on its farther side.

Prostrate Interlaken lies supine before it, gazing appealingly through its innumerable windows across the open Hohenmatte, over the beeches and firs of the protruding shoulder of the Rugen, and on up the dodging, narrow Lutschine Valley to the remote and sympathetic Jungfrau. The scene is ready for the curtain when you have dotted the mountain slopes with chalets.

Or perhaps, if the stranger is fanciful, he will conceive the Alpine ravens thinking it some enormous eagle swooping toward the Lauterbrunnen Valley, with clustered houses for an attenuated body and two lakes for powerful blue wings beating out and back. Or, again, he may be reminded by this group of huge hotels of some fleet of old-time ships-of-the-line that started down the valley to bombard the Jungfrau. Early in the action formation was lost and the great hulks drifted about in hopeless confusion. Several, apparently, went promptly aground on the banks of the Aare right under the precipices of the Harder; all of the big ones foundered in a row along the Hoheweg; a number became desperately entangled in the square before the Spielmatten Island; some trailed southward in what we call Jungfraustrasse, and others in Alpenstrasse; here and there one lies at anchor along the farther meadows, waiting for signals from the flagship on the Hoheweg; and at least one, in the guise of an ugly white church, was caught in some violent cross-current and tossed up high and dry on the brow of the fir-smothered Gsteig.

The evening guest who does not fancy reveries along a mountain stream, nor yet the quiet pacing of the neat lanes that are so characteristic of this immaculate republic of “spotless towns,” whose very flag appropriately suggests the Red Cross Society’s familiar emblem of sanitation, will find it amusing to loiter among the little shops of the village and see the curious wooden trifles of Brienz, the delicately tinted majolica ware of Thun, exquisite ivory carvings, and rare bijouterie of filigree silver wrought with infinite patience and skill. Tiring of these, he may ramble under the fine old walnut-trees of the Hoheweg and congratulate himself that he is not under the horse-chestnuts of Lucerne to look out on inferior mountain prospects and breathe a less intoxicating air.

The most approved form of evening entertainment is a round of calls among friends scattered over the broad lawns of the hotels, when one may divert himself with summer orchestras or itinerant bands of Italian singers in crimson sashes, or revel in a rare profusion of beautiful flowers; and, from time to time, look gladly up at a crisp sky splendid with great luminous stars whose tremulous ardor, in Walter Pater’s famous phrase, “burns like a gem.” It is a capital place to gather impressions of what life at Interlaken means and what goes forward each day among its votaries. It is perfectly plain that this must be a great place; everybody is so bubblingly cheerful and so devoutly grateful for being just here and no possible spot else. You will hear them insisting that Interlaken, being halfway between, is an admirable combination of the complacent “prettiness” of Geneva and the austere solemnity of the vaunted Engadine Valley. Or there will be fragments of conversation reaching you about tennis matches on the Hohenmatte, lake bathing in Brienz, motor-bus runs from the golf links of Bonigen, where the residents plant a fruit tree whenever a baby is born, or of desperate scrambles up the zigzag trails of the Harder beloved of Weber, Mendelssohn, and Wagner, with rapturous accounts of the inspiring view from the Kulm. Some, you will gather, have passed the day uneventfully among the park walks of the Rugen, gazing down on Lake Brienz from the Trinkhalle Cafe, or on Lake Thun from the Scheffel Pavilion, or on both from farther up on the belvedere of the Heimwehfluh. Others again, it seems, have actually crossed the mild Wagner Ravine and ascended the lofty Abendberg of the Grosser Rugen; and for this pitiful adventure you hear them pose as veteran mountain conquerors who will carry their alpenstocks home with them and forever after speak familiarly of edelweiss and the flora of the summits. There even appear to have been romantic souls, familiar with Madame de Stael’s accounts of St. Berchtold festivals, who have spent the hours in dreams of Byron’s “Manfred” down by the old round tower of the dilapidated wreckage of Unspunnen Castle -in truth, the most abject of ruins, and quite as forlorn as Mariana’s Moated Grange. Not a few will have the courage to confess that they have done nothing more heroic than stroll by the shaded Goldei promenades along the Aare until they came to Unterseen, where they deliberately sat down and gazed to satiety at the curious toy houses with the long carved balconies and amazing roofs that project beyond all belief.

Thus, by merely catching flying ends of talk, a stranger may imbibe the proper amount of enthusiasm and gather some rambling notion of the fine things Interlaken has in store for him.