There are times when the reality of Switzerland puts postcard idealization to shame, surpassing advertising-image peaks and skies. Those times happen most often in the Berner Oberland, for this rugged region concentrates some of the best features of rural Switzerland: awesome mountain panoramas, massive glaciers, crystalline lakes, dramatic gorges and waterfalls, chic ski resorts, dense pine forests, and charming gingerbread chalets. Before the onslaught of visitors inspired many locals to switch from farming to innkeeping, agriculture was the prime industry—and this is still true today, evidenced by the frequent sight of cattle dotting the hillsides, as though conveniently placed for photo ops.
The houses of the Berner Oberland are classics: the definitive Swiss chalet, whose broad, eaved roofs cover fancifully scalloped and carved gables. Facades are painted with the family dedication on wood that has weathered to dark sienna. From early spring through autumn, window boxes spill torrents of well-tended geraniums and petunias, and adjacent woodpiles are stacked with mosaiclike precision in readiness for dropping temperatures.
The region is arranged tidily enough for even a brief visit. Its main resort city, Interlaken, lies in green lowlands between the gleaming twin pools of the Brienzersee and the Thunersee, which are linked by the River Aare. Behind them to the south loom craggy, forested foothills, and behind those foothills stand some of Europe's noblest peaks, most notably the snowy crowns of the Eiger (13,026 feet), the Mönch (13,475 feet), and the fiercely beautiful Jungfrau (13,642 feet).
Because nature has laid the region out so conveniently, it has become the most popular in Switzerland for tourism. Its excursion and transportation systems carry enormous numbers of visitors to its myriad viewpoints, overlooks, and wonders. The railroad to the Jungfraujoch transports masses of tour groups to its high-altitude attractions, and on a peak-season day its crowded station can look like the Sistine Chapel in August or the Chicago Board of Trade. But the tourist industry handles the onslaught with ease, offering such an efficient network of boats, trains, and funiculars, such a variety of activities and attractions, and such a wide range of accommodations, from posh city hotels to rustic mountain lodges, that every visitor can find the most suitable way to take in the marvels of the Bernese Alps.