Murray’s suggested “Excursion to the Weissenstein” appears at “Moutiers” (Moutier), 58 km into Route 1, “Basle to Bienne and Bern by The Val Moutiers”, which had already been a long gradual climb up to this point.
Even without this 30 km side trip (and another to the Chasseral at Biel/Bienne, further along), Route 1 is still a mighty 140 km long, so this 560 metre ascent is best only attempted if you are either mega fit or splitting your journey into two days.
I was neither, but in the interest of writing this book, I attempted it anyway.
There is a car road from Moutiers to the summit of the Weissenstein, a distance of about 10 miles, up hill nearly the whole way, and the latter part very rough and bad; fit only for the cars of the country, one of which drawn by two horses, may be hired here to go and return for 20fr.
This is the first of two times Murray visits the Weissenstein, as he also approaches it from the much harder Solothurn side in Route 3.
Whilst the entire route from Moutiers to the summit is now tarmaced, “the latter part” boasts an average gradient of 15% for the final 5km. It’s a muscle popping climb that would test even pro cyclists.
It passes through the villages of Grandval (Grossau) and Ganzbrunnen; the ascent occupies 3 hours and the jolting is very severe.
The Grande-Rue through Grandval becomes the Route Cantonale as it starts the climb up to the tiny village of “Ganzbrunnen” (Gänsbrunnen), just a 30 minute, or 9 km ride from Moutier, 200 metres lower.
With just a population of 95, the German-speaking village is both the highest and one of the smallest communities in Solothurn, and is centred around an impressive quarry, the zum Mühlehof old mill and adjacent Hotel St.Joseph (currently temporarily closed down), which takes the French name for the village (“St.Joseph”, that is, not “Hotel”).
Depending on whether you believe Matthew or Luke (if you haven’t read it, you may be surprised to learn the Bible has contradictory passages), Joseph was the son of King David of Israel & Judah, although, somehow unexplained by either, was a poor carpenter in Nazareth. He’s more famous as being the husband of Mary and Jesus’s stepdad.
When his wife got pregnant, he knew that the child could not possibly be his, although, in fear of being sentenced to death by the Vatican, I’ll let you come to your own conclusions as to how he knew that fact. He also had no idea his wife was carrying the son of God, despite a few tell tale signs; she’d bought a whole new wardrobe and started to wear new perfume, and there was that suspicions text message from the Almighty he’d found on her iPhone when she once left it unlocked.
Despite this, he loved his wife so much that he could not bare to see her stoned to death, the punishment for cheating women back then, so, after sharing out their CD collection and deciding who should have custody of their donkey, he told her to pack her bags and leave, allowing her to do so quietly so she would escape the wrath of the audience on the Jerry Springer Show.
Then, one night, after he’d been drowning his sorrows with wine and cheese, an angel came to him in a dream and told him, “take her back mate, the real father is actually the Holy Spirit. It will be a son, and you should call him Doug. Actually, forget that, he’d be called Diego in Spanish; the South Americans won’t believe you. Go with Christopher. Ah, no, Christopher Christ, sounds like a Country & Western act from Nashville, and Chris Christ sounds like a Texan hip hop band. Nathaniel? Nope, he’ll get called Naz at school. Naz of Nazareth; doesn’t work. What about Brian? or Jesus? Yeah, go with Jesus… Jesús… Iesous… I like it… Jesus Christ do I like it!”
So, after recovering from his hangover in the morning, Joseph did just that and we all lived happily ever after. Well, apart from the odd crucifixion, occasional crusade here and there, religious wars, holocaust and terrorist attacks. But we can’t blame Joseph for that, although he is the patron saint of dying.
He’s also the patron saint of expectant women, which is ironic as he never got anybody preganant himself. Personally, I think he should be made the patron saint of dreaming.
Now, there’s not a lot in the Bible to say who Mary originally thought the father was, nor how relieved she was (and for what reason) when she heard about Joseph’s crazy dream. However, in the days before Jeremy Kyle and DNA testing, she obviously chose to believe him… as have 15 billion people ever since.
Much to the dismay of St.Antonio, Santa Maria, Santa Rosa, and St.Francisco, St.Joseph, or San Jose as he his known to his Spanish cousins, has leant his name to more places around the world than anybody else in history, including here at… erm… Gänsbrunnen (or, as we say in Mancunian, Goose Fountain).
An old carriage at the station – which despite serving barely twenty houses, seemed popular with hikers presumably returning to Solothurn after crossing the Weissenstein and exploring the Naturpark Thal – conjured up thoughts of Victorian travellers in the 1890’s. You could picture them travelling the scenic route with their updated “Murray’s Hand-Book For Travellers In Switzerland” on their lap. That said, the Solothurn-Münster-Bahn wasn’t actually introduced until 1908, four years after the 19th and final edition of Murray’s guide was published, by which time they were probably carrying the more popular 23rd edition of “Baedeker’s Switzerland”, the first (released in 1863, when Murray was on his 10th edition), were openly and accredited almost direct translations of John Murray’s own work.
It was at Gänsbrunnen that the mountain finally came into view and, unfortunately for my motivation, the Passhöhe sign informing me of the 15% gradient for the remaining 5 km, a killer 360 metre climb, which explained why the “jolting is very severe” if you’re in a horse drawn carriage or riding piggyback on a much fitter cyclist’s pannier rack.
Mentally, and physically, I had prepared myself for the high Alpine mountain passes which I knew would appear later in Murray’s Handbook, however I never expected to be making an equally challenging climb on Route 1, barely three hours after leaving Basel.
Whilst it might have been shorter, it was certainly a lot steeper than most of the famous climbs, with the main difference being the entire ascent was made through the forest, which gave a restricted monotonous view of trees and the seemingly never-ending road ahead, climbing for as far as the eye could see.
In fact, other than the opposite approach of the Weissensteinpass from Solothurn, the steepest in the whole of Switzerland at an incredible 20%, there are only three other mountain passes more punishing than the climb from Gänsbrunnen; the Pragelpass, in Schwyz (18%), the Col de l’Aiguillon, in Vaud (18%), and the Ächerlipass, in Obwalden (16%). On learning this fact, I quickly checked the index of “Murray’s Handbook For Travellers In Switzerland in 1838” and made a note to become a lot fitter by the time I reached Route 75.
As the forest road snaked up the pass, zig zagging around three hairpin bends, interspersed with punishing 1km long straight ascents, I could picture Murray in a carriage, being jolted back and forth, complaining about the “very severe” conditions and cursing the poor horses in front.
Being deep in the forest, equally as severe were the flies and mosquitos which seemed to be attracted to the sweet smell of the sweat pouring off me. I was just thankful the canopy of trees protected me from the heat of the sun.
The top of the pass, is actually on another switchback, the sign being surrounded by nothing but trees, as the road snakes around the corner for a steep descent into a valley.
Sadly, reaching the top of the pass was not the last of the climbs, as the welcome 30m drop was quickly followed by a steep 38m climb back up again to the Hotel & Kurhaus Weissenstein.
The Inn of the Weissenstein, and the still more elevated summit of the mountain called Rothi-flue, 2 miles to the east of it, command one of the finest distant prospects of the Alps which can be named.
The great chain of snowy peaks etc, here seen, spread out along the horizon, extends for a distance of nearly 200 miles, from the Sentis on the east to the Mont Blanc in the west. Immediately in front rise the Jungfrau, Schreckhorn and other giants of the Bernese chain.
In the foreground, amidst a varied expanse of wooded hill and verdant vale are seen the lakes of Morat, Neuchatel and Bienne, while the silvery Aar, on which stands the town of Soleure, winds like a snake at the foot of the mountain.
As if the ascent hadn’t tested my heart enough, I almost had a full on heart attack, whilst descending through the forest at 65km/h when a large stag ran out of the trees right across my path. The smell of burning from my disc brakes almost overpowered the smell of fear in my cycling shorts.
30km round trip to the Weissenstein (including 5km, 15% climb)
0km ~ MOUTIER
15km ~ WEISSENSTEIN ↗ 790 m ↘ 15 m
30km ~ MOUTIER ↗ 15 m ↘ 790 m