A surreal experience 88 years in the making.
Our small yellow and green cog-wheel train chugs slowly up the incline, reminding me of the children’s story,The Little Engine That Could. We have boarded the train in Lauterbrunnen where we are staying for three nights and Eric and I have this sunny June day in a Swiss valley to spend as we wish. When travelling with a tour group, one must follow the guide’s agenda, so today is particularly special.
We have hopped on the Wengernalpbahn, running 20 km from Lauterbrunnen to Grindelwald via Wengen and Kleine Scheidegg, making it the world’s longest rack and pinion railway. In between the train rails are racks that interact with pinions attached to locomotives and train cars to assist trains with moving up steep inclines. (I prefer “cog-wheel.”) Trains can’t run away downhill.
The view is breathtaking: snow-topped alps and blue sky above, lush green fields and trees below, lacy waterfalls streaming down cliffs on the opposite side.
The Hotel's Significance
Our destination is the Hotel Regina in Wengen, a village perched above the valley. We are drawn by the fact that, at the age of 24, my mother Betty stayed there for three weeks over Christmas 1930, accompanying her aunt and cousin. I first learned the family significance of this locale in 2001, after
discovering letters she’d written to her Montreal family. Now I’m excited to see it for myself and walk in her footprints.
Disembarking at the tiny Wengen station, it’s a short stroll to the hotel. Porters use pushcarts to manage the luggage of guests checking in. We plan to have a look around and a café latte.
Next to the front entrance a brilliant green lawn beckons, its red and white striped canvas deck chairs set in a semi-circle. No guests currently sit there admiring the views. I bet chair occupancy is at a premium during the winter ski season. I’ve read that Wengen’s 1,300 year-round residents swell to 5,000 in the summer and 10,000 in the winter.
Inside I approach the front desk, to explain the impetus for our visit. The Swiss-German receptionist states that the hotel was built in 1928, so it was brand new during Betty’s stay. He pronounces Regina with a hard “g” – not the soft “g” in the capital of Saskatchewan.
This “four-star establishment in Victorian style” has been carefully maintained and expanded over the years, with a new dining room and spa opening recently.
Picturing Young Betty
Walking over to a stairway leading to the guestrooms upstairs,I suddenly feel goosebumps. I picture young dark-haired Betty slipping gracefully down the stairs to meet Jack Graham, an Australian law student whom she met during a ski lesson. (She glows in an evening dress.) Their romance ignited in this village. She was studying in Paris; he was at Cambridge, and they managed to see each other several times over the next six months. He then returned to Australia; she to Canada.
We head into the lounge with a bar in the corner. Mounted on the wall is a luge with steering wheel, no doubt like the luge she wrote about enjoying with other young people on New Year’s Eve. A quote from her letter, “Heaps of fun as it was a gorgeously clear starry night, and an almost full moon made it very light. We arrived back about 3:30 am after a very good time.”
Large windows face the valley. To the left is an enormous fireplace, with decoratively moulded mortar forming the mantle. The ceiling’s wooden beams are deep coral, painted with small white alpine flowers. I imagine Betty standing there warming herself after a cold day of skiing between Kleine Scheidegg and Wengen. In the 1930s, the train was the precursor to the modern-day chairlift.
Unsurprisingly the fancy décor of the new restaurant doesn’t appeal to me. We’re not here to dine anyway. I’m here to replicate Betty’s experience so we wander back into the more dated section of the ground floor. After settling ourselves at a table, a waiter serves us delicious café lattes with biscotti. I feel Betty’s presence so strongly that in every photo Eric takes I appear to be on the verge of tears. But I am elated to be here, soaking in every minute detail.
Cloud begins to descend as we leave Hotel Regina to explore the village. Determined to purchase a worthy souvenir, I buy a Jowissa Swiss Made watch – white face and red leather strap (Swiss colours). It continues to spark joy with every time I wear it.
Train Up the Mountain
Rain starts to fall while we wait for the train to Kleine Scheidegg. Once aboard, I take this photo looking back at the hotel.
In the higher village, the large restaurant near the train station is thronged with noisy tourists. We climb a hill to a typical Swiss chalet’s tiny restaurant for a hearty lunch of soup and crusty rolls. We share the dry interior with only four other people. Eating at tables on the deck must be spectacular in fine weather.
We try to not lament the socked-in cloud completely blocking our view of the alps. After all, this is just an addendum to our Wengen experience. Fun to calculate that 88 years ago Betty would don her skis right here and schuss her way back down to the stunning Hotel Regina.
Following this 2019 visit to Wengen, I wrote an historical novel, Through Her Opera Glasses, based on the 78 letters that Betty wrote between August 1930 and June 1931. How surreal to stand in the very lounge where she had unwrapped her aunt’s Christmas gift – mother-of-pearl opera glasses. I still have them.