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.
“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. ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’, the famous James Bond movie, was shot there,” he said.
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’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.
Balmer’s Pension has been operating since 1907. It is currently in the third generation of the Balmer’s family. Frida and Adolf Balmer originally started the operation as a “Touristenheim” (tourist house). The name Balmer’s Herberge is being used since 1945. The couple used to accommodate British school groups in the 50s.
Erich, who belongs to the second generation, came back from working in the US and Canada and transformed the “Touristenheim” into a private hostel in the 70’s. Initially, the guesthouse had 50 beds, but quickly the number rose to 350. “My wife Katharina and I managed the property for over 40 years, helping Interlaken grow into a global tourist destination,” Erich, who was the youngest of three brothers, said.
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.
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 across the world 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.