• pankajcd@gmail.com
  • 201 375 7389

Monthly Archives: April 2019

  • -

Backpackers’ Guru of Interlaken

My Swiss sojourn would have been far from complete had I not met Erich Balmer, the backpackers’ guru of Interlaken in the Bernese Oberland.

At 75, Erich exudes extraordinary energy and vitality. Every single movement speaks of his abiding zest for life and boundless enthusiasm. His ever smiling face and endearing mien was amazing.

Effervescent Eric

Balmer’s Herberge: backpackers’ paradise

One of the ‘Top 10 hostels for fun’ in Europe

“Hey, you’re a smart guy,” he bellowed as I was taking a stroll around Balmer’s Herberge in the wee hours of the morning. The March-end morning sun was caressing Interlaken with snow-clad Alps creating a surreal spectacle. “I saw you ambling toward the village so early in the morning…Few guys venture out so early in the morning. That’s great. I like it,” he told me.

I was taken aback. I wasn’t aware then that this man owns the property. His body language showed we can be friends forever. As we interacted, I realized how passionate Erich is about environment and how profound his vision is about life. “Keep smiling because your smile can make life more beautiful,” he said. “If you see somebody without a smile, give them one of yours,” he said.

“Look at the tap,” he said pointing at the flowing water coming from the tap in his hostel premises. “We drink this spring water all the year round,” Erich said as the rays of the sun on the Alpine peaks created a spectacular sight.

When I pointed out to him that I had an incredible trip to Jungfraujoch (‘Top of Europe’) the day before, he asked whether I had been to Schilthorn.

Schilthorn is a summit in the Bernese Alps of Switzerland. It overlooks the valley of Lauterbrunnen in the Bernese Oberland and is the highest mountain in the range lying north of the Sefinenfurgge Pass.

“You must visit Schilthorn before you leave Interlaken. The summit is famous for watching the sunset over the Alpine peaks. A famous James Bond movie was shot there,” he said.

Tranquility reigns

Erich brought his car and drove us (my wife and son were there) for about 40 minutes to the base of the summit. It was an unforgettable car ride through the stunning mountain landscape as he was recounting his love for nature, adventure and how he nourished his baby, Balmar’s Herberge, which was elected from 8000 as one of the “Top 10 hostels for fun” in Europe.

As his car drove past the Alpine forests, we saw a herd of mountain goats. “Hey, look! Here are our guests from India,” he shouted at the mountain goats as they scampered away and disappeared into the forests.

We relished his hearty humor!

He was about to buy tickets for three of us for the cable car ride to Schilthorn.  “We’ve a trip already scheduled for the day. Our train to Bern will leave at 11am,” I told Erich.

His magnanimity and warmth of feeling touched me.

Erich said his grandfather had owned this property 109 years ago. Erich’s father Adolf was a down-to-earth Bernese Oberlander and an excellent cook. His mother Frida, who had Italian parents, grew up in the Sarganserland. He was the youngest of three brothers. Since his boyhood, he had a penchant for doing business. On Hoheweg, he used to sell self-picked flowers. He always wanted to do something on his own.

Erich traveled to Manchester to learn English language when he was just past his teens. A year later, he traveled to the US with the Queen Elizabeth II. However, his family came to know about this only when he was back in the UK.

Road to a Swiss hamlet

His passion for travel and adventure made him go around the world to promote Swiss tourism. “I had been to Mumbai University and delivered talks on tourism,” Erich said recalling his good times in India.
“I was fascinated by India, its multiculturalism, its very many languages and different religions and above all its mysticism,” he said.

In 1993, Balmer’s ‘Tent village’ got the thumbs-up from the authorities. In 1998, ‘Tent village’ was expanded with more tents. “And in springtime 2010, everything was modernized,” he said.

In 1999, an underground bar in the style of a subway station was built. It is a great meeting place for all backpackers who’d descend on Interlaken to savor the ultimate experience of Swiss Alps.

Erich’s vision has a significant impact not only on his hostel, but also on the entire Bernese Oberland, the most beautiful region of the world. He has shown how the outdoor adventure possibilities can be developed in the region.

Erich seems inexhaustible when it comes to ideas on how to create added value for his young guests. Besides, the hand-operated ‘Handy-Boats”, for the physically challenged, Erich invested in other rideable two-wheeled vehicles.

Erich’s pioneering zeal to promote Bernese Oberland was amply demonstrated when during the Geneva summit (1985) between US President Ronald Reagan and Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev, he invited 50 young Russians and Americans to Interlaken.

To everybody he likes, Erich hands a lucky one-Swiss-cent coin. Former US President Bill Clinton and soccer emperor Franz Beckenbauer also belong to this illustrious club.

He was given a folded US flag for his abundant merits in the US youth tourism.

Erich always remains true to his motto: organize, invest, delegate, motivate, and collect. His success proves him right. Switzerland’s oldest backpacker registers 45000 overnight stays per yer.

Erich knows perfectly well how to motivate his staff. His employees admire his infinite energy and unflinching zeal. He always leads them from the front.

The septuagenarian, however, wants to hang up his boots. “It’s been a long journey. I’d like to hand over my property to my daughters. I’ll sign necessary legal papers soon,” Erich said.

His two daughters – Carmen and Fabienne- have been at the hostel’s helms, much to their dad’s delight, for quite some time now. Continuing the heritage isn’t an easy task. “Guys, is it gonna be alright?” Erich sometime asks his daughters. He, however, lets them run the hostel their way and works from behind. He’s confident his daughters will find their way, as he found it about 50 years ago.

What’ll Erich do now?

“I’ll travel to Anchorage, the largest city in Alaska, in May with my friends from Globetrotters group,” he said.

Eyes are windows to the soul, they say. I looked at Erich’s eyes and could easily gauge his infinite wanderlust and undying zeal for adventure.

Interlaken Ost

Scintillating Swiss Alps

Picture perfect

Incredible Interlaken


  • -

My encounter with Vinci’s vineyard

As I stepped out of Hostel Meininger Lambrate Milano to savor the sublime experience of Leonardo’s vineyard, my schoolteacher’s history class on Leonardo da Vinci crossed my mind. I remembered the photograph of the Renaissance masterpiece, ‘The Last Supper’, which Leonardo had painted on the north wall of Santa Maria delle Grazie basilica in Milan.

I ambled across the road from the hostel to Lambrate Metro station close by and boarded a train to Cadorna.  After the abortive attempt by a pickpocket (a young white Parisian girl) during my travel by a subway train in the French capital, I was doubly cautious. Well, I didn’t encounter any ‘unholy attempt’ during my Milanese sojourn. Huh! 

Milano Centrale, the largest train station in Europe by volume

Milan in motion

In about 15 minutes, the subway train chugged into Cadorna Metro station. I got off the train and took the stairs up and started walking toward my destination.

The magical Milan unveiled its stunning Renaissance architecture and incredible engineering marvels. Tourists in March-end weren’t many except some ‘affluent’ Chinese who were following a middle-aged lady holding a flag in her hand in the front: a common sight I had seen during my trip to European cities.

After visiting the stunning Santa Maria delle Grazie basilica, I crossed the road and walked into Leonardo vineyard’s cafe before having the feel of Vinci’s vineyard. I ordered pizza. Never did I have such an out-of-the-world stuff in my life.

Leonardo used to unwind here while painting ‘The Last Supper

Following the initiative of a family trust and wine geneticists, Leonardo’s vineyard (Duke of Milan gifted him) was restored. The estate passed through various hands, until in the 1920s its owners asked Leonardo expert Luca Beltrami to do some research on its history. Beltrami located the vineyard from Renaissance documents, and took photographs of vines still growing up in ancient wooden pergolas that were most probably made to Leonardo’s design.

Excavating organic matter at the site of the former vineyard, the team was able to determine the exact varietal of grape that Leonardo grew, as well as his vineyard’s original layout. Once it was decided to reestablish the vineyard, University of Milan staff had given the new grapevines a head-start by growing and grafting them in a greenhouse. They then introduced the vines into the soil of the historic plot of land in early 2015.

A peek into history: Ludovico Maria Sforza, who was nominated governor of the dutchy of Milan on 3 November, 1480, gifted Leonardo his vineyard measuring 60 x175m (located at today’s 65 Corso Magenta), just across the road where Santa Maria delle Grazie basilica is located. While painting ‘The Last Supper’, (1494-1498) Leonardo used to go to the vineyard and relax with a glass of wine.

During Ludovico’s tenure which ended in 1500, Milan witnessed amazing architectural marvels, some of which still stand more than five centuries on.

Leonardo, who hailed from a family of winemakers, hoped owning a plot of land would allow him to claim Milanese citizenship. Leonardo was deeply attached to his vineyard. In his will he left it to two of his servants.

The Renaissance Genius’ resting ground while he was painting the fabulous fresco in Santa Maria delle Grazie

The estate’s present-day owners replanted it as it had been in Leonardo’s time, after DNA testing on the roots of the original vines showed them to be malvasia di candia aromatica, a white grape popular in Renaissance Lombardy.

Now the vines keep flourishing in the garden of Casa Degli Atellani and the house and grounds are open to accompanied tours. Those visiting on Saturday afternoons can enjoy a typical Milanese aperitivo of wines.

In the early 1400s, Milan was still a Middle Age city focused on war and conquering Florence. However, the Sforza family took over and brought peace to the region. With peace came new ideas and art of the Renaissance. Milan was famous for its metalwork which included suits of armor.

The Casa degli Atellani is a historic Renaissance residence. Together with ‘The Last Supper’ and Santa Maria delle Grazie, the current Casa degli Atellani, while having undergone modifications over the centuries, remains the only existing trace of the district as imagined by Ludovico. It is the last building on what is now Corso Magenta which maintains part of the appearance it had during the Renaissance.

A guided tour leads visitors to the discovery of the treasures of the house and its enchanting garden where the  Renaissance genius used to unwind him while working on his masterpiece.

As I was leaving the garden, I traveled back to the glorious days of the Renaissance architecture, the architects’ innovative prowess and the great artists whose infinite wisdom and super skill shaped the European culture. And on the eve of Leonardo’s 500th anniversary of his death, 2019 is a perfect time to retrace the artist’s footsteps in the northern city.

Outside Milano Centrale station


Thanks for stopping by.