Scouting Switzerland: Piz Gloria and Schilthorn

Piz Gloria, Schilthorn, Switzerland
Piz Gloria on the Schilthorn in Switzerland – All photos by James Riswick

I had always figured it was a matte painting, the old-time film precursor to computer generated effects where an actual artist painted an actual picture to be superimposed in the background of a scene. James Bond is dangling precariously off a cliff, with the lights of a village twinkling an unbelievably long way below. It was just too absurdly high and vertical; the film makers were clearly using movie magic to increase drama for 1960s audiences. As a 1990s teenager and later a post-millennial man, I couldn’t be fooled in such a way.

Well, perhaps not, but it wasn’t the magic of Hollywood with which I was matching wits. As I turned our rental car around yet another serpentine bend in Switzerland’s Lauterbrunnan Valley, I began to realize the unimaginable and literally sheer grandeur of the Alps. For there, amidst a verdant field, pine trees and a babbling river was a collection of barns and farm houses cobbled together to form the village of Stechelberg. And, more importantly, on each side were sheer cliffs that filled our windows despite being several hundred yards away.

I slowed the car and looked up through the window, craning my neck until I could finally see the upward end to this mighty wall of rock. It was indeed absurdly high and vertical, but now I had no choice but to believe it. My apologies, Mr. Bond.

Lauterbrunnan Valley, Switzerland
A camera can’t do Lauterbrunnan Valley (or anywhere in the Alps) justice. That cliff face is more than 1000 feet tall.

Lauterbrunnan Valley is located a half-hour drive or train trip from Interlaken, which itself is roughly two hours away from both Geneva and Zurich. This tiny town has largely been taken over by tourist-friendly endeavors, but its centuries-old hotels provide top-notch accommodation, spectacular views and a great starting-off point for Alpine adventures like sight seeing, hiking and especially skiing. It would definitely make for a memorable honeymoon destination.

And although my bride of three years was accompanying me, this particular adventure was of a rather different sort. For, several thousand feet above even the top of that wall of rock amidst a series of grand Alpine summits is Schilthorn Mountain and Piz Gloria, a revolving restaurant, observation post and starting point for a black ski run.

Well, that’s what it is today. Back in 1969, it was villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld’s mountain layer in that aforementioned James Bond film, “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.” Most film sets get torn down after shooting ends – you can’t visit the Batcave or tour the Death Star – but Piz Gloria is a real place and it’s still there. For my wife, this was an opportunity to see a spectacular corner of the world, for me as a Bond fan, it was a pilgrimage.

Piz Gloria, Schilthorn, Switzerland
The cable car to Murren jam-packed with skiers — and one James Bond fan.

Pilgrimages can be rife with difficulty, though, and for someone with a fear of heights, the idea of traversing that sheer wall of rock by cable car was not exactly appealing. The three subsequent cable car journeys that hop-scotch various peaks and plateaus while traversing about 7,000 vertical feet made me wonder whether swimming with the sharks from “Thunderball” would’ve been a better idea.

Having survived the first cable car segment, the second stop is in the town of Mürren. Located about 4,000 feet above the valley floor, this charming collection of chalets in the shadow of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau peaks is a quaint, car-free slice of Alpine paradise. Parents pull children along the snowy main “road” by sled, others move along by ski; one man took his St. Bernhard for a walk. In the summer, the snow is replaced by impeccably green grass and colorful wild flowers. Either way, a stay in one of Mürren’s chalet-style hotels would be another great honeymoon choice.

Murren, Piz Gloria, Schilthorn, Switzerland
Murren, in the shadow of much taller Alps.
Hotel Eiger, Murren, Switzerland
Hotel Eiger in Murren
Piz Gloria, Schilthorn, Switzerland
The first glimpse of Piz Gloria from Birg

The next stop in the cable car journey is Birg, which is really just a small restaurant, large patio and popular disembark point for skiers placed atop a small, rocky peak. A Skyline Walk similar to the one at the Grand Canyon will also be opening in 2014.

That’s all well and good, but there’s still another cable and more than 1,000 feet to traverse. It is here that I get my first glimpse of Piz Gloria, a tiny silver speck atop a snow-covered peak reflecting the bright white sun.

With a front row position in the cable car, Piz Gloria gets closer and closer. The building consists of a circular building home to the 360-degree rotating restaurant and a viewing deck (formerly the helipad built for the movie) connected by an elbow-shaped walkway. After disembarking the cable car (with great relief) and making our way up an escalator, I stepped onto the deck.

The air is clean and crisp, but not frigid, a testament to the unseasonably warm March temperatures. The assembled tourists and skiers are busy taking pictures and gazing at the awe-inspiring panoramic view of more than 200 Alpine summits and Lake Brienz in the far distance. Little do they know or care that they are standing on a Bond fan’s hallowed ground.

Piz Gloria, Schilthorn, Switzerland, James Bond, On Her Majesty's Secret Service
The main view deck at Piz Gloria. No, we didn’t Photoshop James Bond into the picture
Piz Gloria, Schilthorn, Switzerland, James Bond, On Her Majesty's Secret Service
The view up to Piz Gloria from a secondary view station on the Schilthorn
Piz Gloria, Schilthorn, Switzerland, James Bond, On Her Majesty's Secret Service
Author James Riswick poses with James Bond actor George Lazenby. Well, sort of.

Actually, a pair of nearly life-sized cut-outs of James Bond have been placed on the walkway with information about the movie, but as it is one-time Bond George Lazenby, folks aren’t as enthralled to take a picture as they’d be if it was Sean Connery or Roger Moore. I couldn’t care less, and happily indulge my inner (and outer) nerd by snapping a photo with 007.

The “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” museum managed to teach even an expert like me a thing or two, while the rotating restaurant served decent food at prices that weren’t as expensive as we expected (though still expensive since it is in Switzerland).

The indelible memory, however, is the view. You don’t need to be a James Bond fan to appreciate it, and in fact, we couldn’t help but think that Piz Gloria would make for a truly spectacular winter wedding destination. The viewing deck and walkway are just about perfect for the ceremony, while the restaurant could serve as a cocktail reception venue. Dinner could be held down in Mürren, where you and your guests could stay in one of its chalet hotels.

As a James Bond fan, I certainly couldn’t think of any place better.

Piz Gloria, Schilthorn, Switzerland, James Bond, On Her Majesty's Secret Service
The view down to Birg from the 360-degree restaurant at Piz Gloria
Piz Gloria, Schilthorn, Switzerland, James Bond, On Her Majesty's Secret Service
Inside the restaurant. The gold pillars and accent trim remain from the making of “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”
Piz Gloria, Schilthorn, Switzerland, James Bond, On Her Majesty's Secret Service
From the viewing deck, you can get a truly spectacular view.

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