Hotel Gurten-Kulm 1901 on an old postcard

The moving story of Bern’s local mountain

The Gurten as a guard post

In the 6th century, Burgundy stretched as far as the Aare and throughout the constant disputes with the Alemanni, the Gurten served as a watch post for the Burgundians and Franks. Seven centuries later, the scouts had left the Gurten and in the southern region, the Aegerten family established the hill as the seat of an imposing castle, of which only parts of the foundations still remain. It is said that over the centuries, the stones were removed from the towering walls to be used to build the houses of the Gurten village. In the era of the House of Zähringen, it was customary for family names to denote origin. As a result, the descendants of the inhabitants of this village still living in different parts of the region around Bern still bear the name Gurtner.

History of the Gurten – an old watchtower on Bern's local mountain
A vineyard on the Gurten

The source of water and wine

In 1393, the rapidly growing city of Bern experienced a serious shortage of supplies. As the citys water sources threatened to dry up, the spring in the Bächtelen was drilled on the Gurten and its water was channeled to the citys fountains, which represented the focal point of city life at that time. So that wine could flow as well as water, vines heavy with grapes were also planted on the Gurten at this time.

The Gurten-Chutz warns of danger

The modern-day observation tower on the Gurten recalls a time when Bern had to make a stand against intruders. A high guard tower stood in this location in the 15th century with a “Chutz” – a huge fire staff that would be lit as soon as the lookouts on the Gurten saw danger coming. The beacon warned the inhabitants of the city and the bells of cathedral sounded the alarm. The Chutz on the Gurten burned for the last time in 1847.

History of the Gurten – a Chutz as a sentry post
Old postcard with the Gurten funicular by the Gurten Kulm spa hotel

Physical well-being and the funicular

About 50 years later, the Gurten hill and some 15 hectares of land became the property of Fritz Marti, an entrepreneur from Winterthur, who opened the “Chutzengut” restaurant and catered to guests from 1898. More and more people began taking a pleasure trip to the mountain so that, in addition to the restaurant, the entrepreneur had a large banqueting hall for about 400 guests built and founded the Elektrische Gurtenbahn AG, which soon began operating the most modern funicular of its time. The largest children’s playground in Bern at that time was opened on the Gurten to provide the next generation with its very own enjoyment.

The creation of the Gurten Kulm spa hotel

Marti commissioned the Bernese architect, Albert Gerster, to build the Gurten Kulm spa hotel which opened its doors in 1901 with a total of 30 rooms. A number of Gerster’s buildings, such as the Hotel Bristol, the Loeb department store and the residential buildings and villas in the outer districts, still characterize Bern’s cityscape. The first guests of the Gurten Kulm spa hotel included wealthy English visitors, clubs and associations who would exchange “Grüezis” and “Good Mornings”. Many of these visitors would make a stop on the Gurten to take a breath of mountain air before traveling on to Valais or Engadin. The hotel brochure at that time advertised the achievements of the time, such as electric lighting and central heating, warm and cold baths, showers, steam baths excellent spring water and the very best cuisine. Because the Gurten funicular was already electrically operated at that time, the Gurten became a symbol of modern tourism.

Gurten Kulm spa hotel 1901
Skiers on the Gurten meadow

Winter sports and the development of talent

In 1902, Switzerland’s first ski race with international competitors was held on the Gurten. It was all about defending sporting honor in the four disciplines of Gurten racing, ski jumping, school races and endurance. The Gurten became the sponsor of Swiss winter athletes and even founded its own ski club in 1908. The Gurten descent from the Ostsignal to the valley station attracted numerous winter sports fans to the mountain. For many years, the winter visitors crowded into the Gurten funicular, nose to ski-tip. The first ski lift was only opened many years later in 1951.

Dissent and the First World War

When the nephew of Fritz Marti decided to sell the entire site in 1913, the City of Bern expressed its interest. For twelve long years, no agreement could be reached. In 1925, the majority of the Bernese citizens finally agreed to the purchase of the Gurten meadow, which would remain an excursion destination for the city-dwellers. It was an inopportune moment to purchase the site as, in the meantime, the First World War had greatly reduced the number of visitors and the demand for recreation. The tone became even more abrasive in the otherwise peaceful world outside the city. Where in the past the watch post fire flared up, an observation post was set up during the Second World War and interned American pilots forced to make emergency landings in Switzerland were housed in the Hotel Gurten Kulm.

Hotel Gurten-Kulm 1901 on an old postcard
Photo of the Gurten and the 9-hole golf course taken from a plane

Greens for golfers

The end of the war brought the return of more peaceful times and recovery to the Gurten, along with the golf club which, between 1937 and 1958, reserved the entire course and club house for its members and guests. This was a bitter loss for everyone who had to save up a couple of cents just to take the trip on the funicular.

Inauguration of the new top station

In 1949, the Gurten funicular inaugurated its new mountain station. Thanks to the modernization, the journey time was reduced to five minutes. And the funicular could now hold 100 passengers instead of 60. At the inauguration, Ferdinand Bärtschi performed for the first time with an entertainment program for children. He continued to perform for forty years with his accordion, inviting young visitors to the Gurten on to a little stage on which, even today, children can sing their favorite hits, tell jokes or recite poems in front of an audience.

The Gurten funicular was refurbished and looked very modern for its time.
A nostalgic picture of the miniature railway. A hoard of kids standing around the miniature railway.

Car-free local recreation

After the Gurten meadow was once again made accessible to the public in 1959, the Gurten was definitively designated as a recreational area for the population with the introduction of the driving ban. The money needed to make the necessary investments was nevertheless lacking and the impassioned motorists were indignant at the ban. So the project moved cautiously forward in small stages and in 1960, the new playground together with miniature railway was inaugurated.

The first small but classy Gurten Festival

In the summer of 1977, the first Gurten Festival was held in the meadow. In those days, it was still a straightforward festivity with musicians and the public wandering barefoot through the meadow and drinking to togetherness.

First Gurten Festival in 1977 on Bern's local mountain
Ski jumper on the ski jumping hill on the Gurten

Paradise for ski jumpers

The ski jump built in the 1930s was in use until 1979. Due to the mild winters, a dry jump was built for use in summer, inaugurated in the summer of 1987 with an international jumping competition. From then on, three competitions were organized every year in the form of the “Gurten Cup” while young ski jumpers could train diligently. Nevertheless, interest in ski jumping – like the long winters – melted away over the years and the last Gurten Cup was held in July 2012. To spare the ski jump the ignominy of becoming a sad, unused presence exposed to the ravages of time, it was pulled down in 2013 bringing the ski jumping era on the Gurten to an end.

The last days of the spa hotel

In 1983, the City of Bern closed the doors of the hotel, which was in need of renovation, leaving only a temporary self-service restaurant to welcome visitors from near and far. The insidious decline of the business reached its low point at the end of the 1980s with the installation of signs reading “Keep out. Danger of collapse!”.

Hotel Gurten Kulm in 1983, in need of renovation
New Year's Eve sculpture by the artist Bernhard Luginbühl

Bern asks Migros for help

Having already tried to acquire the Gurten in the 1970s, Migros failed due to the interests of the municipal government, which was unable to improve this attractive area on its own. In 1992, the authorities of the City of Bern turned to Migros with the request to create a “Park im Grünen” on the Gurten. The Gurten should be open to all, operate a welcoming restaurant and offer an attractive leisure, sports and cultural program. Migros too laid down its conditions. The operations must be managed by a foundation in which Migros would have a majority holding. Another condition was the interest-free transfer of the city land to the foundation in leasehold, along with the renovation of the Gurten funicular and the expansion of the parking garage beside the valley station. The majority in the city parliament and the 89.9% votes in favor in the referendum of 1995 placed the Gurten in the highly responsible hands of the new foundation. Consisting of the City of Bern, the Municipality of Köniz, and Migros, the Gurten – Park im Grünen foundation is tasked with maintaining and expanding the local recreational area open to all while promoting cultural events on the Gurten. Work began on the Gurten in 1997, funded entirely by Migros to the tune of over 30 million francs. Expert craftsmen worked for hours on end to give the charming original spa building renewed splendor. Two restaurants and a number of seminar rooms were created within the dignified walls and the surrounding area was given a face-lift. The “Park im Grünen” was inaugurated on December 31, 1999 with a huge New Year’s Eve party including a performance by Polo Hofer and his SchmetterBand and the burning of Bernhard Luginbühls wooden “Silvester” sculpture.

 

Buildings and landmarks

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Association of Master Carpenters of Bern and environs in the year 2000, skilled carpenters built an observation tower – at the cutting edge of wood technology. A spiral staircase leads up to the observation platform, supported by twelve ribs, which offers anyone brave enough to climb the stairs a breathtaking panoramic view.

The observation tower on the Gurten from below
Outside view of the Pavilion at dusk

The Pavilion – an absolute gem

In 2014, the Gurten acquired a new gem. Where the banqueting hall and, subsequently, a highly visible white marquee stood in the past, the stylish, glazed Pavilion rose from the ground and, with its unique atmosphere, is now available for large-scale events, sophisticated brunches and upscale celebrations.

Stay the night or set the balls rolling

The two remaining hotel rooms from the former spa hotel were comprehensively refurbished and reopened in 2015. They are called “ieu” (Bern German for “yes”) and “äuä” (Bern German homonym that can express admiration or distrust, depending on the intonation and facial expression) and offer guests the chance to revel in the original atmosphere of the spa hotel for a night as the mountain belongs to them alone. In the same year, the Migros Culture Percentage inaugurated the new ball run on the Gurten – one of the largest attractions at the playground that delights even the older visitors.

This hotel room has a balcony. Guests enjoy a view over the city from the bed.
A large wooden table in the middle of the restaurant Gurtners

Gurtners conquer the kitchen and guest area

In 2017, the Bel Etage à-la-carte restaurant underwent major refurbishment and was reopened as Gurtners restaurant. Gurtners picked up the historical threads from yesteryear, wove them together again and resurrected the Gurtner family and their legendary hospitality. At Gurtners, traditional dishes and Grandmother Gurtner’s wholesome recipes are given a modern twist and served lovingly under the motto “good food lovingly prepared”.

20th anniversary

On Saturday, May 18, 2019, a giant raclette was served at a 400-meter-long table installed across the Gurten meadow. After the culinary highlight, the evening produced its second high point with the “Buebetröim” concert by the Swiss Jazz Orchestra & Friends. The anniversary Sunday was all about the family, and a wide-ranging entertainment program was organized for children.

400-meter-long raclette table on the Gurten meadow for the 20th anniversary
The Kulm building on a spring day

A year to forget

The coronavirus and the special measures taken in 2020 will long remain in the collective memory of many visitors to the Gurten. On March 16, the nationwide lockdown was announced. After 48 hours of cleaning, the lights were switched off until June 5. On June 6, the restaurants could once again open their doors and the summer was busy with numerous guests enjoying a day out. Following an increase in the infection rate, the second nationwide lockdown came into effect on December 22. The entire enterprise was once again closed, before the restrictions began to be relaxed again, and on May 31, 2021, normal culinary and leisure activities could once again be enjoyed on the Gurten.

Events and seminars

Today, the Gurten – Park im Grünen boasts two restaurants, a take-away stand, eight seminar rooms, two banqueting rooms, a rustic vaulted wine cellar, the Pavilion, the Kulturschür UPtown and about 100,000 square meters of parkland with a playground, a disc golf course and a toboggan run. There is ample space for large-scale events for up to 3,500 people, weddings, all kinds of celebrations, workshops and seminars.

Red-lit carpet in front of the Pavilion on the Gurten