A journey which influenced parts of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings
Photo: Lauterbrunnen seen from Wengen, 2016-May.
It is a internet favourite fact that author J.R.R. Tolkien once visited Lauterbrunnen, and that it inspired Rivendell (he never said so directly but the evidence strongly suggests it is the case). But he also saw far more on his trip to Switzerland and actually did link those places to the books.
I have found all the evidence I can on this and made suggestions on how his journey through Switzerland can be recreated either as easily or as closely as possible.
I am a fan of Tolkien, but not a superfan. I have never touched The Silmarillion, plus I had to look up most of the named places in this post. I am much more of a Switzerland-nerd really. This started as a quick fact-check that grew rather out of hand…
- The facts
- Interpreting the events
- The Route
- Recreating this yourself
- Stage along the Route
- Suggested itinerary
- Resources and Appendix
Tolkien visited Switzerland in the summer (July/August) of 1911 at the age of 19. He and his brother were taken by the Brookes-Smith family who his family was friends with (his brother was working on their farm at the time) and who sounded a wee bit eccentric.
They went as a very mixed party of 12 (with a local guide too) including Tolkien’s aunt Jane Neave, who is often speculated to have been the inspiration for Gandalf.
There are two main sources of information for this: Tolkien himself, and Colin Brookes-Smith, with their accounts supported by 3 dated documents from the time.
It is worth keeping in mind that Tolkien and Brookes-Smith, who was 12 years old when they travelled through Switzerland, wrote their accounts over half a century later as old men remembering their boyhood adventures.
- Most of the information from Tolkien himself comes from Letter 306 (1967) that he wrote to his son 56 years after the trip at the age of 76. He describes the route and some events along the way. Some parts are clearly remembered and directly linked to places in the books, others are skipped over or rather vague. So it is a little hard to figure out exactly what he did (still not bad for a brief letter written so long after just being somewhere once).
- Letter 232 (1961) has far less information on the trip as a whole but directly states that some of the events ended up in the Hobbit.
Colin Brookes Smith:
- In an unpublished account of the trip Brookes-Smith is said to contradict some of the more extravagant claims made by Tolkien in his letters (e.g. Tolkien claims to have often slept rough in cowsheds or under the open sky, whilst Brookes-Smith says they almost always found accommodation), but confirms some of the other points and adds some further details (Brookes-Smith, Colin. Some Reminiscences of J. R. R. Tolkien. Unpublished: Bloxham. 1982).
- Being unpublished, the account is hard to find. The books referenced in the comment below contain little snippets of information.
- The Brookes-Smith family made regular trips to the Alps so it is possible that when writing his memories of Tolkien 70 years later, Brookes-Smith might have mixed up details with other trips. However he is said to have a map of the trip with Tolkien that was filled in by an older member.
There are also 3 exact places and dates that can be pinned down:
- “5 August 1911: Tolkien’s name is written in the guest book of the Ober Steinberg Berg-Gasthaus in the Inner Lauterbrunnenthal, south of Interlaken.” The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide Revised and Enlarged Edition (2017) Christina Scull and Wayne G. Hammond.
- “On 17 August 1911, Tolkien’s friend Christopher Wiseman replied to two cards received that day from Tolkien, who he said was ‘on the other side of the valley’ from Gletsch.” The Worlds of J. R. R. Tolkien: The Places that Inspired Middle-earth (2020) John Garth.
- “25 August 1911 Tolkien signs the guest book at the Cabane de Bertol, above Arolla on the Col de Bertol (Bertol Pass). This is presumably the day trip to a high-altitude hut recalled by both Tolkien and Colin Brookes-Smith.” The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide Revised and Enlarged Edition (2017) Christina Scull and Wayne G. Hammond.
Interpreting the events
There is the question of how literally to take Tolkien’s letters and how much to read into what ends up in the books. It can be easy to read into everything and to start assigning connections to every little event or place. A number of enthusiastic people have invented parts of Tolkien’s adventures (saying he visited the St Beatus caves or Gornergrat despite no evidence of that), or have even managed to make up some of their own translations (“We descend into the Grindelwald (from an ancient Germanic word meaning mysterious forest)”, no it is most certainly not). I have tried to be clear about what there is evidence for versus what they MIGHT have done.
Assigning real life events to fiction one to one is a bad idea at the best of times, but especially so with Tolkien. To quote from John Garth’s ‘The Worlds of JRR Tolkien’, which is beautifully written and gives the most insightful and level headed approach to the topic that you will find anywhere:
“Existing discussions of Tolkien’s place inspirations are often unsatisfactory. Most boil down to the circular argument that some wood mountain or river ‘must have’ inspired him because it looks ‘Tolkienesque’. Such assertions say little about Tolkien. Tourist offices and entrepreneurs often ignore or distort the biographical facts to serve local commercial interests, and their assertions acquire the air of fact by being repeated in newspapers and on Wikipedia. At the other extreme, some genuine Tolkien experts are better at identifying possible influences than judging their plausibility, producing a spaghetti of loose ends.”
“[Tolkien’s] instinct was to dip, mix and layer, drawing from personal experience, reading and imagination – a touch from here, a hint from here, a flourish out of nowhere.”
Whilst it did influence him, it is easy to read too much into the influence the Swiss landscape had on Tolkien’s work. In a biography written by a good friend of his, less than 2 pages are given over to the trip (J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography (1977) Humphrey Carpenter). I think the films have also skewed the perception somewhat towards the Alpine landscape thanks to being shot in New Zealand. In reality, Tolkien spent far more time in the gentler English landscape, for example he is quoted by his biographer as comparing the Malvern Hills in Worcestershire with the white mountains between Gondor and Rohan, which is quite different to the endless high and lonely peaks in the film where hardcore mountaineers manned the beacons.
Most of the attention goes to Lauterbrunnen, being the touristy photogenic spot that it is, but Tolkien did a bigger tour of Switzerland that inspired other parts of his work.
The route (by train/boat up to Interlaken):
Birmingham – Harwich – Ostend – Cologne – Frankfurt (via a boat through the Upper Middle Rhine Valley Gorge) – Munich – Innsbruck – Interlaken – Lauterbrunnen – Mürren – Kleine Scheidegg – Grosse Scheidegg – Meiringen – Grimselpass – Brig – Belalp – Passes from St Niklaus though to Les Hauderes– Zermatt and/or Arolla – Sion – Homeward.
They certainly got about, and especially so if (as it sounds) they did it all by foot. By my estimate this trip is at least 315km with 20,000m of height gain. And that is ignoring possible side excursions which would add on a fair bit more height change.
Hardcore hiking seemed to be the order of the day, going by the diary of Miss Jemima Morrell who was one of the first package tourists to Switzerland.
Then versus now
Clearly 110 years is a long time. There has been change, but the sights and feel would still be recognisable.
You can use the Swiss topographic map with its time-jump feature (swipe back and forth) to see how the whole country looked in 1911 compared to now (or any other year from the mid-1800s if you change the settings).
In short, there was much more glacier, and far less buildings at the time Tolkien and his fellow adventurers travelled trough Switzerland. The increase in buildings and infrastructure (especially the ski infrastructure across the mountain meadows) since then would probably give Tolkien a heart attack and lead to comments about “The Scouring of the Schweiz”. Not to say the industrial parts ruined landscapes entirely, but there is much bigger human touch to everything around now. The noise of traffic (especially motorbikes) on the pass roads would likely have upset him:
“It is full Maytime by the trees and grass now. But the heavens are full of roar and riot. You cannot even hold a shouting conversation in the garden now, save about 1 a.m. and 7 p.m. – unless the day is too foul to be out. How I wish the ‘infernal combustion’ engine had never been invented.“Tolkien (Letter 64)
Switzerland was already a tourist destination when Tolkien visited, but the number of travellers and the infrastructure serving them has vastly increased. What then was a hard uphill hike to a hamlet that existed purely for grazing animals in the high meadows in summer is now an easy cable car ride up to year round villages which have massively expanded thanks to ski tourism. The view is still impressive but the feeling of the places have changed. There are still many obscure and hard to reach little places in the Alps if you want to recreate that feeling.
There are still Tolkien-friendly old rural style Shire-like paths, but mostly with a modern twist. Today, you can still see generations of a family collecting their hay with rakes and scythes from the fields in summer, though often most of the work is done by special tractors except on the steepest of slopes. Cows still roam the meadows. Now, electric wires keep them in the right place (still got the bells though). Farmers are even paid to keep historic elements like old fountains in good order.
Recreating this yourself
You could do this as 2-3 weeks of pure hard hiking, or a few days of relaxed public transport rides along many of the same routes with no physical exertion (only the final stage in the high Valais is impossible to follow exactly by public transport). Much of it is safe and worry free unless you go for the hardest options, even then you are never that far from civilization for supplies or shelter.
You can also just easily visit a few of the places. The Jungfrau region at the start and Zermatt at the end are major international tourist destinations so getting in and around is very easy.
I have written about hiking in Switzerland, and also Switzerland in general to quite an extensive degree before. My post on the Jungfrau region also covers a the area around a fair few of the early stages.
Almost nobody has the time or energy to walk this whole thing in a perfect recreation, and frankly parts of this like Meiringen to the Grimselpass probably wouldn’t be much fun now. But if you do want to do what I am going to term “the full Hobbit”, then I have made a hiking map here for the whole thing up to the Bertol hut – Link. A 315 km hike with +20,000m / -17,000m height difference (more if you carry on from the Bertol hut to Zermatt or down to Sion).
- The trip itself was made in July/August and the passes should be doable from late June, to early October (weather allowing).
- There are actually guided tours with this theme, but is much cheaper (500CHF per day is insane) and easy enough to do it yourself. The footpath and transport system in Switzerland makes this very easy to plan and do.
- There are endless adventurous diversions you can take along the way. I have only included the most relevant that are directly on the path and would have been possible back then. See the local tourist info for more ideas.
- Surprisingly the local tourist offices don’t make much of a fuss about it (beyond a cut-out of Aragorn in Lauterbrunnen). I have never noticed any signs, theme walks, tourist tack or anything like it in the area, which is a little odd as the Swiss love their themed tourism (see the Mark Twain walks at Rigi and Riffelberg, and the milking of James bond at Schilthorn). About the only thing is this page on the Jungfrau tourism website which is fairly well hidden. It starts out well, but then degrades into desperately trying to tie every tourist activity in the area to something from LOTR.
- Other than Arolla down to Sion This all takes place in the German speaking part of the country, in most places along the way English is widely spoken due to the tourism industry. High-German will function if you know it, just don’t expect to understand the Swiss-German you hear (especially in Valais). You can probably imagine that Swiss-German is a Middle-Earth based language…… (if you do want to learn more about Swiss German then see this post))
- It is important to remember the context that he came from a heavily industrial city in the gentle landscape of the UK Midlands, passing through other industrial cities along the way before arriving in the rural alpine valleys. You might want to visit a giant Chinese industrial city first for a few weeks to establish the right feeling on arrival.
Stage along the Routes
I have broken this down into stages with suggestions for easy (but still enjoyable) and more authentic harder options.
Stage 0: Getting there
They took quite a roundabout route. Maybe they wanted the scenic route or maybe they just made it up as they went along. Taking the train from Munich to Innsbruck and then to Zürich is a very beautiful train line.
For most people you could just fly to Zurich or Geneva and then take the train to Interlaken (with a change in Bern).
Stage 1: Interlaken to Lauterbrunnen valley
The most common comparison is that Lauterbrunnen valley is Rivendell. Tolkien himself never said this directly, but this link provides various forms of evidence which strongly suggest it is at least a strong inspiration. Although you wouldn’t mistake Swiss farmers for gossiping elves.
We went on foot carrying great packs practically all the way from Interlaken, mainly by mountain paths, to Lauterbrunnen and so to Mürren and eventually to the head of the Lauterbrunnenthal in a wilderness of morains.Tolkien, Letter 306
“Here it is at last!” he called, and the others gathered round him and looked over the edge. They saw a valley far below. They could hear the voice of hurrying water in a rocky bed at the bottom; the scent of trees was in the air; and there was a light on the valley-side across the water….. Bilbo never forgot the way they slithered and slipped in the dusk down the steep zig-zag path into the secret valley of Rivendell.The Hobbit
- Easy: Train from Interlaken to Lauterbrunnen, then to Mürren either by foot/bus along the valley floor and cable car up, or cable car to Grütschalp and train/walk along.
- Moderate: Train from Interlaken to Lauterbrunnen, wander up the valley to the Trummelbachfalle and back to Lauterbrunnen, then go up to Grütschalp and do the mountain trail to Mürren.
- Hard: If you want to take Tolkien and the Hobbit literally then to avoid the roads you can do mountain trails right out of Interlaken, up to Sulegg, and along to drop down into Lauterbrunnen. This fits with the book but would be a really hard start to the trip, it would however be a truly unique experience as the number of people doing this entry to the valley must be utterly tiny. You could do this all on foot as a 2 day hike Link, or you can also take the bus from Wilderswil Bahnhof to Saxeten to reduce it down to a single day hike Link. Either way you would understand how Bilbo got so tired (and he had a pony too).
- I wrote about the Jungfrau area before in more detail.
- Interlaken has nothing of interest (unless you love hotels and tourist shops), don’t bother with it other than somewhere to sleep or change trains. Despite being between the lakes it is not on either so it doesn’t have a lakeside feel.
- The building at the St Beaten caves near Interlaken looks like it fell out of picture of Rivendell but are probably nothing to do with Tolkien. The site was a tourist spot then and it isn’t far from Interlaken so maybe he went (if he did he didn’t mention it). Apparently there is a part of it that dates back to the 1500s as a chapel, but as far as I can tell the structure is for the most part very modern and as likely to have been inspired by Tolkien as VV. Still the caves are pretty and there is a myth of a dragon residing in the area too. My post on visiting there.
- The main iconic waterfall is the Staubbachfall which you can walk to from Lauterbrunnen village in 5 minutes (and go through a tunnel behind it for free in summer), more impressive but hidden (and not free) is the Trümmelbachfalls which are about 30 minutes along the valley by foot (or an easy drive/bus ride). Tolkien made no mention of them however, but they have impressed people like Goethe and Byron. The marketing line “the valley of 72 waterfalls” has really stuck. Though just about any mountain valley will have lots of waterfalls, and unless it is actually raining you will have a hard time counting 72 (or even care about more than 10 of them).
- One especially mad fan wants to build a Rivendell theme park there (Google: realrivendell wixsite) but the chance of success is going to be about 0% and it seems to be long dead.
Stage 2: End of the Lauterbrunnen valley
We went on foot carrying great packs practically all the way from Interlaken, mainly by mountain paths, to Lauterbrunnen and so to Mürren and eventually to the head of the Lauterbrunnenthal in a wilderness of morains.Letter 306
5 August 1911 Tolkien’s name is written in the guest book of the Ober Steinberg Berg-Gasthaus in the Inner Lauterbrunnenthal, south of Interlaken.Addenda and Corrigenda to The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide Revised and Enlarged Edition (2017)
- Easy: There isn’t any easy way to get to the Berggasthaus Obersteinberg. The easiest adventure at the end of the valley is taking the cable car up to Schilthorn.
- Hard: Mürren to Berggasthaus Obersteinberg via Tanzbedeli.
- The Berggasthaus Obersteinberg is still there and can be reached by foot from Stechelberg (bus from Lauterbrunnen) or from Mürren/Gimmelwald. Either way the shortest roundtrip is 10km with +1000m and -1000m of height change. You can also stay overnight.
- Tolkien talks about the morrains, which some people link to the strenuous experience of Frodo climbing mount Doom (and having climbed plenty of similar places I can agree there).
Stage 3: Lauterbrunnen to Grindelwald
Up and over the Kleine Scheidegg (smaller/lesser water divide).
We must then have gone eastward over the two Scheidegge to Grindelwald, with Eiger and Mönch on our right, and eventually reached Meiringen. I left the view of Jungfrau with deep regret: eternal snow, etched as it seemed against eternal sunshine, and the Silberhorn sharp against dark blue: the Silvertine (Celebdil) of my dreams.Tolkien, Letter 306
- Easy: Train from Lauterbrunnen to Kleine Scheidegg, and then down to Grindelwald. The Lauterbrunnen-Kleine Scheidegg-Grindelwald pass line opened in 1893 and was electrified before Tolkien arrived so it is an authentic option.
- Hard: Hike (19km, +/- 1400/1150m), it is stage 11 of the Via-Alpina route. However the Lauterbrunnen-Kleine Scheidegg-Grindelwald mountain trains present an escape option if you get too tired at any point, or want to cut the length down.
- The view of the Silberhorn which you get from Kleine Scheidegg (a secondary peak of the Jungfrau) really stuck with Tolkien. He called it “the Silvertine (Celebdil) of my dreams” (the peak with the tower where the Gandalf-Balrog fight ends, I had to look it up too).
- Go via Wengen for the classic view up the valley (shown as the header of this page).
- An obvious diversion here would be taking the train to Jungfraujoch. This opened in 1912 after Tolkien passed by, but they had partial service to the Eiger and Eismeer windows before then, so he could have gone part way up though it seems likely he would have said so given how unique an experience it would have been. I don’t think it is overly worth it unless you have never seen a glacier close up before, and only then if you walk over to the Mönchsjochhütte.
Stage 4: Grindelwald to Meiringen
Up and down over the Grosse Scheidegg pass (car free, bar the odd bus).
We must then have gone eastward over the two Scheidegge to Grindelwald, with Eiger and Mönch on our right, and eventually reached Meiringen.Tolkien, Letter 306
- Easy: Bus 128 from Grindelwald to Schwarzwaldalp, then Bus 148 down to Meiringen.
- Moderate. Hike down to Rosenlaui from the Grosse Scheidegg.
- Hard: hike (23km, +/- 1100/1500m), it is marked as stage 10 of the Via-Alpina route, it could also make a very good 2 day hike with an overnight at the Rosenlaui.
- This passes by the Hotel Rosenlaui, a belle-epoque style hotel which dates back to 1905 or older and has been kept as authentically as possible. I stayed there in 2020 and wrote about the hotel and area around the Grosse Scheidegg in this post.
- The Grosse Scheidegg is much quieter, less developed, and at times more wild feeling than the Kleine Scheidegg which is much more touristy and is covered with ski infrastructure.
- In the final approach to Meiningen you pass by the Reichenbachfalls of Sherlock Holmes fame (not bad falls, but far from the best around). The funicular there opened in 1899 and it is very likely that at least someone in the party would have wanted to see it.
- On which note the whole Sherlock Holmes theme to Meiringen is really surreal. Otherwise Meiringen is pleasant enough but nothing exciting (though it does claim to be home to the Meringue).
Stage 5: Meiringen to Brig
Up the Grimselpass, then down via Obergoms.
We later crossed the Grimsell Pass down on to the dusty highway, beside the Rhone, on which horse ‘diligences’ still plied: but not for us. We reached Brig on foot, a mere memory of noise : then a network of trams that screeched on their rails for it seemed at least 20 hrs of the day.Tolkien, Letter 306
On 17 August 1911, Tolkien’s friend Christopher Wiseman replied to two cards received that day from Tolkien, who he said was ‘on the other side of the valley’ from Gletsch.”‘Tolkien’s Worlds: The Places That Inspired the Writer’s Imagination’ By John Garth.
- Easy: During warmer months a Postbus (#161) runs from Meiringen to Oberwald. From there you can take the train down to Brig. However the bus only runs twice a day or so, so you can’t hop on and off wherever it takes your fancy sadly. A faster but less authentic (still scenic) option is taking trains to Brig via Interlaken and Spiez.
- Hard: Hike. This is about 73km with 2000m of height gain and loss so clearly needs to be split over multiple days. For example: Meiringen-Guttanen-Grimsel-Obergorms (eg Biel)-Grengiols-Brig.
- The Aare gorge just outside Meiringen opened to tourists in 1888 (and was actually more extensive then) and Tolkien would have had to have walked through or near it. Everyone seems keen to compare it to the rapids in Fellowship but he had also just actually taken a boat through the Rhine gorge in Germany which might also have played a big part there.
- This section is a bit of a strange mix. Much of the valley is still wild with only a few hotels and farms for much of the route, but big dams have been built by the pass with pylons taking the energy they generate down the valley, the road has also opened up to much more tourist traffic and is a very popular tour for motorbikes.
- If you do want to walk some of it I would suggest doing that in the Obergoms area which is a beautiful valley with meadows and small (mostly wooden and rustic) villages. For example from Gluringen to Fiesch (via the suspension bridge).
- Brig is in my experience fairly forgettable. The old town is small but pleasant, and the Stockalper Schloss is pretty enough. Tolkien talks of “screeching trams”, I presume he meant the trains which were running down the valley then as Brig doesn’t seem to have ever had a tram network.
Stage 6: Around the Aletsch glacier
Up the mountainside to the foot of the mighty glacier (all car free up there) where you can quite easily get at least a bit of the way into the UNESCO region. This actually gets most of Tolkien’s attention but is often overlooked in favour of the more popular Jungfrau region and Zermatt.
We climbed up some thousands of feet to a village at the foot of the Aletsch glacier, and there spent some nights in a châlet inn under a roof and in bedsTolkien, Letter 306
It was approaching the Aletsch that we were nearly destroyed by boulders loosened in the sun rolling down a snow-slope. An enormous rock in fact passed between me and the next in front. That and the ‘thunder-battle’ – a bad night in which we lost our way and slept in a cattle-shed – appear in The Hobbit.Tolkien, Letter 232
- Easy: Take a cable car up to one of the villages like Riederalp/Bettmeralp/Fiescheralp and then a second cable car to the ridge with views down onto the Aletsch glacier
- Moderate: Cable car up and then some or all of the Aletsch Panoramaweg.
- Hard: Hike all the way up from Brig and make a glacier tour.
- I have written more about the Aletsch region in this post.
- It seems that the village they stayed at was Belalp. The Hotel Belalp has been there since 1856 so it is possible the group passed by or even stayed there.
- Otherwise maybe for the actual foot of the glacier “Oberer Aletsch” or “üssers Aletschi” would fit, but they are literally a few remote Alp sheds so are not the best option (or if you are hardcore they might actually be the best option). Eggen would also have been close to the glacier and remains quite small. After that Bealp or Riederalp are much more practical with shops and cable car access. Access around there via train and cable car is easy from Brig or anywhere else on the valley floor.
- The Aletsch Glacier is one of the biggest highlights of Switzerland. It is hard to stress just how big it is. In my opinion the best viewing point is from the Eggishorn. The Aletsch Wald (a forest growing amongst glacially carved rocks) is beautiful and in part eerie. The hike from Riederalp to Belalp or VV via the suspension bridge is fantastic (11km +/- 700/880). Or just drop down from Riederalp where it starts quite close to the village. The first time I went to do this hike a thunderstorm swept in and I found myself very quickly returning back to Riederalp. This route would have been partially under the glacier in 1911.
- A guide or skills and equipment are needed if you want to go on the glacier itself.
Stage 7: High Valais
Things get a bit confused here with Brookes-Smith and Tolkien seeming to disagree on the route.
After this we went on into Valais, and my memories are less clear; though I remember our arrival, bedraggled, one evening in Zermatt and the lorgnette stares of the French bourgeoises dames. We climbed with guides up to [a] high hut of the Alpine Club, roped (or I should have fallen into a snow-crevasse), and I remember the dazzling whiteness of the tumbled snow-desert between us and the black horn of the Matterhorn some miles away.Tolkien, Leter 306
Based on a route marked on a map by an older member of the group Brookes-Smith gives the route as: Visp – Stalden – St Niklaus – Gruben – Forcletta pass – Grimenz – Hauderes – Arolla. He isn’t reported as mentioning Zermatt but seems less sure after what they did in Arolla saying that “we must have walked down the Val d’Herens to Sion”.Brookes-Smith
25 August 1911 Tolkien signs the guest book at the Cabane de Bertol, above Arolla on the Col de Bertol (Bertol Pass). This is presumably the day trip to a high-altitude hut recalled by both Tolkien and Colin Brookes-Smith.The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide Revised and Enlarged Edition (2017)
It is possible that (1) they followed the route given by Brookes-Smith and then over the glaciers to Zermatt (you would certainly be bedraggled after that), or (2) went up to Zermatt first then back down to St Niklaus and through the passes and up to Arolla, or (3) it could be that one or both of the accounts is wrong/incomplete: they were written long after the trip took place. The only certainty is that made it to the Cabane de Bertol.
- Easy: Train to Zermatt and then go up to Gornergrat. You can also reach Arolla by bus from Sion.
- Moderate: Some of the passes, or there are plenty of hikes around Zermatt and Arolla.
- Hard: There is plenty of room for the hard option here. The route described by Brookes-Smith from Stalden up to Arolla then the Cabane de Bertol crosses 3 passes and is a rather hardcore 92km with +7500m / -5000m. From Zermatt to the Cabane de Bertol and then down to Arolla. There is no path and this involves crossing a glacier. The last part is for experts or those with a qualified guide only.
- Tolkien signed the guest book at the Cabane de Bertol. Which on a rocky outcrop at 3311m is one the higher and more exposed huts in Switzerland. There is no easy way to get there, the approach from nearby Arolla is quite tough being 1300m of height over 8km, including a glacier/ice crossing even in summer. I have walked from Arolla up to the Plan de Bertol below the hut where you can just about see it on the ridgeline above.
- There are various options for a similar experience. I am going to pick Gornergrat for this. You can hike up there, or take the train up from Zermatt (the fully electric train opened in 1898). The height at 3089m is similar and you are surrounded by high peaks and glaciers.
- The Brookes-Smith valley hopping route is the biggest section of the trip that can’t be directly covered with public transport.
- Given how many parts of the trip seem to translate directly to the Hobbit you might see that the Matterhorn is the Lonely Mountain reached at the end of a long and perilous journey. Though he never said that himself and clearly it is lacking a lake, and isn’t THAT lonely, so (like with most things Tolkien) the inspiration wouldn’t be 100% direct.
- Once in Zermatt itself you have plenty of hiking and other activities to do. I have written about it before too.
- I spent a week in Evolène including a hike up around Arolla and close to the Cabane de Bertol.
- Mark Twain also came to Zermatt, his ascent of the Riffelberg and to Gornergrat in ‘A Tramp Abroad’ is well worth a read.
Stage 8: Homeward
We must have walked down the Val d’Herens to SionBrookes-Smith (he is also quoted as saying there was a long tunnel.)
Whether they ended up in Arolla or Zermat they would have gone down to the main Rhone valley in Valais. The most likely route seems to be taking a train towards Lausanne. The Lötschberg Tunnel connecting Valais to Bern opened in 1913, so that is out. It is possible they looped back towards Bern via the Gemmi or Lötschen passes, but there is no evidence for that.
Other than a long walk down you can take the bus from Arolla down to Sion, or the train from Zermatt to Visp. Both ways put you on the main train line with connections on to Geneva and Zürich.
If I ever find myself out of work during the summer I will take a few months to recreate the whole thing and write a book about it.
If that was too much info and you just want a fixed plan then this is what I would suggest for 10-14 days (for shorter time frames you could use public transport to skip whole sections). This is full on, so add a rest day in as you like.
- Day 1: Interlaken to Lauterbrunnen by train. Walk along the valley to the Trummelbachfalls, double back to Lauterbrunnen, take the cable car to Grütschalp and then the Mountain Trail hike to Mürren.
- Day 2: End of valley hike to Obersteinberg.
- Day 3: Hike over the Kleine Scheidegg to Grindelwald. (Optional shortcut up or down with train)
- Day 4: Hike over the Grosse Scheidegg to Meiringen. (Optional shortcut with bus)
- Day 5: Meiringen to Brig via bus and train. Hike from Grimsel Pass down to the train or along a section of the Obergoms (eg: Gluringen to Fiesch).
- Day 6: Cable car up to Eggishorn, admire the glacier and follow the path along to Bettmeralp.
- Day 7: Hike from Rideralp to Belalp via the Aletsch forest.
- Day 8: Train to Zermatt. Take a gentle hike up to Zmutt.
- Day 9: Zermatt. Take the train to Gornergrat and adventure along the ridge.
- Day 10: Zermatt. Hike the Edelweissweg.
You could then spend a day or two travelling to Chur and visit the Greisinger museum if you are willing to sit through a long lecture to see some interesting items. Though I would try to avoid the Glacier Express and take local trains myself.
- It is a bit out of the way of this route, and nowhere near where Tolkien himself went, but in Graubünden on the other side of Switzerland is the Greisinger Museum. A private collection of all things Tolkien. I visited and found the place to be impressive but the medium length tour was a tedious experience thanks to an unexpected 2+ hour lecture. Tours can be booked by language/time at their website. it isn’t cheap (but is still cheaper than Hobbiton in NZ).
- Villa Vals is often posted as the ‘Swiss Hobbit House’, though it is far too exposed and concrete to really look like that.
- It is said in his biography that at some point in the trip Tolkien bought of postcard of “Der Berggeist” by Josef Madlener which he kept and later wrote on it “origin of Gandalf”. However the daughter of the artist says the painting was most likely done in the period 1925-1930, so he probably didn’t pick it up in Switzerland.
- Tolkien never went anywhere near it, but Appenzell is basically the shire as much as it can be found in Switzerland today (in as much as a part of Switzerland can be like the English Midlands.). A very traditional rural area (women in Appenzell Innerrhoden couldn’t vote on local issues until 1991) that is worth a few days to explore.
Resources and Appendix
- Tolkien’s Gedling 1914 by Andrew Morton (2008).
This seemed to be the first source to publish the Brookes-Smith information. There are a few anecdotes on Tolkien which might well not have been published before, but it is mostly focused on local history in the area near Nottingham (UK) where Tolkien’s aunt had a farm and he spent some time. I grew up less than 5 km away from the location so the book as a whole was much more of interest to me than it would be to the average person from elsewhere in the world.
- Tolkien’s Worlds: The Places That Inspired the Writer’s Imagination by John Garth (2020).
- Switzerland in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth: In the footsteps of his adventurous summer journey in 1911 by Martin S. Monsch (2021).
The biggest book you will find dedicated to this topic, about 95% of which is tangential speculation. Turning a few hundred words of evidence from the letters into a 350 page book is quite a feat. The author does this by basically talking about Swiss history/culture/places along the route, and then saying why every tenuous link means it must have been the inspiration for something. As a book on Swiss history/folklore it is a good read, but the Tolkien links try too hard. For example Tolkien mentioning that the Obergoms still had horse drawn stagecoaches is enough to confirm to the author that the Upper Valais is Rohan. It just has to be constantly shoe-horned in and gets annoying quite early on. The author did an immense amount of research into folklore and newspaper articles and weather conditions at the time and is clearly enthusiastic about the topic, but every fact and obscure event just has to be forced into the Tolkien narrative. For the big finale he convinces himself that Tolkien must have seen a massive forest fire by Wimmis on his way back which “inspired” Lake Town and Smaug, an enormous event which Tolkien apparently never mentioned anywhere if he did see it. The most interesting note is that he cites Brookes-Smith as saying “there was a long tunnel on the journey home’.
The quality varies significantly and they often go off into wild speculation and outright assertion of made up facts. Still they can be an interesting read.
- TheOneRing.net – In Tolkien’s Real Misty Mountains.
- tolkienlibrary.com – The Road to the Misty Mountains and beyond.
- NYtimes.com – Down the Hobbit hole in Switzerland.
- BBC.com – In Alpine villages, Hobbits lurk.
- lucyfuggle.com – Living and hiking the literary heritage of Tolkien.
The account of Christopher Brookes-Smith
Snippets of the account of Brookes-Smith (Brookes-Smith, Colin. Some Reminiscences of J. R. R. Tolkien. Unpublished: Bloxham. 1982) can be found in ‘Tolkien’s Gelding’ and The worlds of ‘JRR Tolkien’. Mostly as second hand rather than direct quotes.
- Describes the initial stages of the journey in more detail. Harwich (UK) – Ostende (BE) – Cologne – Frankfurt (via boat through the Rhine gorge) – Munich – Innsbruck – Zürich – Thun – Interlaken (by boat? which seems unlikely as the train reached Interlaken by then).
- The group was kitted out with: tropical solar pith helmets (wide brimmed for the ladies, helmet for the men), Austrian loden cloak, hobnailed boots, spiked alpenstock, short skirts for the ladies. Brookes-Smith notes that the skirts might have caused some scandal, and the boots caused a commotion when the party noisily entered a cathedral in Innsbruck.
- Disagrees with Tolkien’s account of roughing it. Saying they only slept one night in a barn with accommodation being found otherwise.
- One night whilst sharing a room together Tolkien played a game with the maid by speaking in what sounded like German but was nonsense.
- Remembers Tolkien coming out with a number of quips and sayings, one of which was “Hannibal crossing the Alps with one eye and a mackintosh”.
- He had a map of the tour marked by an older member, providing more detail in Valais: Visp – Stalden – St Niklaus – Gruben – Forcletta pass – Grimenz – Hauderes – Arolla. He isn’t reported as mentioning Zermatt but seems less sure after what they did in Arolla saying that “we must have walked down the Val d’Herens to Sion”.
- He describes the hut at the top of the climb over the glacier as having a toilet which was a gap between two rocks over a big drop, which would seem to fit well with the Bertol hut which perches high up.
- He backs up the tales of rocks crashing down from the melting glaciers. Though this seems to be near Arolla rather than on the Aletsch.
- He recalls Tolkien amusing the group by mimicking the overly careful steps of some older ladies.
- He recalls a long tunnel at some point on the trip home.