August in the Alps
It wasn’t just the lure of hot chocolate, stunning mountain scenery and attractive wooden chalets that clinched it for Joanne Appleton when her family decided to go on a Scripture Union (SU) holiday in Switzerland . . .
When a friend told us about the Swiss Family Holiday, we were intrigued. He said he thought it would be “our sort of holiday” and the leaflet he gave us certainly whetted our appetites, with pictures of fantastic scenery and captions like “we go up mountains in cable cars, then drink hot chocolate and walk back down”.
The holiday is held during the last two weeks in August in the Swiss Scripture Union Chalet in Rougemont, near Gstaad in Switzerland. Billed as a “Christian holiday for families with teenage children”, the pictures of walking in Alpine pastures – and maybe even skiing – appealed to my husband Andrew and me. I think my daughters Ruth and Sarah were more interested in the mention of hot chocolate, meeting other kids their own age, and the fact that their parents would sleep in a chalet on the other side of the village from them.
So, several months later, we found ourselves in Rougemont, a village in the Pays d’Enhaut area just over 50 miles from Lausanne. It was just what you expect a Swiss village to look like. Cobbled streets wound steeply upwards, lined by spacious wooden chalets with colourful window boxes and the 2,200m high Videmanette mountain dominated the landscape.
The Scripture Union chalet ‘Clos des Pierres’ was on the outskirts of the village, with a stream running through the grounds, and cows (all wearing cowbells) in the fields next door. It was actually a farmhouse dating from 1757, although it has expanded to accommodate up to 58 people. The farming family who owned it donated it to the Swiss SU for work among young people.
As other families arrived, we took the opportunity to find out a bit more about the holiday. It started in 1985, and Graham and Ro Burbridge from Cranleigh Baptist Church in Surrey have hosted all but the first, ably assisted by John and Elizabeth Searle from Exeter and Jonathan and Pippa Large, also from Cranleigh.
Some of the families had been many times before – Cath and Ian had even ‘borrowed’ a teenager to bring, as their kids were too old, but they still wanted to come along! Others had been once or twice before, or like us it was a completely new experience.
The kids quickly found their feet and washing up after dinner proved a good way for them to get to know each other. Ruth and Sarah were sharing a dorm with four girls of a similar age, with the boys sleeping down the corridor. The adults leading the holiday were staying in the chalet as well, so we knew they were in good hands. Our chalets were about 20 minutes walk away and much more luxurious, with stunning views down the valley.
After dinner, Graham explained the daily routine. Breakfast was self-service and the time varied depending on what was planned for the day. One day, we were warned, would be a 6.30am start! After breakfast, John Searle, Ro and Graham’s brother-in-law would give a short ‘thought for the day’ each before we set out for that day’s adventure.
The packed lunches were to be made up the night before – bread, ham, tuna and cheese laid out on the long refectory table in the dining room, with Ro’s flapjacks and a supply of apples to keep us going.
We usually arrived back some time mid-afternoon, and had time for a quick chat on the terrace before dinner. Ro did all the cooking, but each night one family would be responsible for clearing up the pots and pans in the large downstairs kitchen – a ‘bonding’ exercise! There was also a rota for washing up after meals, shared between the young people, ladies and men.
Most evenings everyone gathered in the meeting hall for a time of worship followed by a short Bible message from Graham. Then the teenagers stayed downstairs and chatted with the youth leaders while the adults went upstairs for discussion.
A bowl of hot chocolate rounded off the day nicely before the adults drove back to the chalet at the other side of the village, and the kids ‘settled’ for the night.
So what were the highlights? The walks for one were incredible – and even better because we usually took the cable car up and walked down. One day we went to Les Diablerets. It is the highest peak of Lake Geneva’s Alps, with stunning views as far as Mount Blanc and the Eiger.
Those who had been there before told us how the glacier used to go right over the edge of the precipice. Now there was only stony rock – and a newly-opened 1000m-long toboggan ride – in its place. Andrew and Sarah, being the more adventurous of the family – just “had to” go on it. Fortunately, the toboggan is locked onto the rails and can’t come off, as the track goes right to the edge of the precipice, and Andrew went down without using his brakes!
The walk from there to the cable car station was one of our longest at just over eight miles. Large boulders exposed by the receding glacier littered the ground, and every so often large signs told us ‘danger, crevasse.’ We also discovered a new way of exploring the mountains – when two extreme mountain bikers whizzed past us.
Some days we ventured further afield, including a day long trip to the Jungfrau. This 4,158m high mountain and UNESCO World Heritage site was first ascended in 1811. We took the easy way up however from Kleine Scheidegg via the Jungfraubahn cog railway, an impressive track tunnelling under the Eiger and Mönch mountains built at the turn of the 20th century.
The Jungfraujoch visitor centre is also largely underground, with restaurants, shops and even Europe’s highest post office. Outside, some of the young people enjoyed skiing and snowboarding, while others went for a short trek across the glacier.
But the holiday wasn’t just about walking. We also enjoyed a boat trip between Speiz and Interlaken and visited the chocolate factory near Bulle – the ‘sampling room’ at the end of the tour was a definite highlight for us all.
Both Sundays we attended the English-speaking church in Chateux d’Oex, and led the service on the second week. The church is an important focal point for the expatriate community and the many tourists who stay in the area.
All too soon though, the 11 days were over. We left with lots of promises to stay in touch and maybe go back next year. And the abiding memories?
Meeting new people from a wide variety of backgrounds.
Revelling in the majesty of God’s creation and singing How great thou art against a backdrop of the Swiss Alps and cowbells ringing just outside.
One of the dads, Julian, giving us an impromptu piano concert in the adults’ chalet.
And most of all, enjoying spending time with our daughters and watching them enjoy spending time with their new friends.
Our pastor was right. It was “our sort of holiday” after all.
What the organisers say
Graham and Ro Burbridge have organised the Swiss Family Holiday for the last 22 years. I asked them what the holiday meant to them.
“Over the years we have made many lasting friendships, and it has been a joy to hear from several who say they have benefited as a family from the relaxed Christian ethos of the holiday in which they have been able to share and learn from others.
“Some have told of how their rocky relationship has been restored and we have had the privilege of seeing some youngsters take their first steps to faith and others challenged to serve God elsewhere.
“I suppose the unique thing about the holiday is how families return home feeling they have had a holiday together, but at the same time everyone has felt free to do their own thing.
For more information, contact Graham and Rosemary Burbridge, Beechcroft, Avenue Road, Cranleigh, Surrey GU6 7LL. Tel: 01483 273277 or e-mail email@example.com