Four Lakes Hike Switzerland: The world's most beautiful walking trail

There is a condition known as Stendhal Syndrome which may or may not exist. It was named after the 19th-century French author and purportedly describes being so overwhelmed by beauty as to be in danger of fainting. In Florence, in 1817, Stendhal visited the Basilica of Santa Croce where he saw Giotto's frescoes for the first time and afterwards wrote that he was "in a sort of ecstasy … absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty … I had palpitations of the heart … I walked with the fear of falling".

Two hundred years later, scientists and psychiatrists are still unsure whether the Tourist's Disease (as it is also known) really exists but I'm here to tell you it doesn't – because if it did there would be a lot more tourists passing out and rolling down the mountainsides in Switzerland.

Of course, Stendhal was writing specifically about art but the idea still springs to mind upon turning around halfway up a steep incline during the Four Lakes Walk between Engelberg and Melchsee-Frutt in central Switzerland and thinking "well, that's just stupidly … perfect".

It's a view (think snow-capped cliche and placid lake mirroring cerulean sky) so achingly lovely as to be ridiculous. Stendhal would have collapsed into a blubbering heap, I'm sure.

Luckily, I'm made of sterner stuff.

My attempt to brave all that beauty starts in the quaint but touristy village of Engelberg where my hotel is all dark wood smells, animal skulls and views of the surrounding mountains. Engelberg itself is a 50-minute train trip from Lucerne and is the place to visit if you have a hankering to own cowbells or walking sticks.

I begin the day with a cable-car ride up the foothills of Mount Titlis, at the top of which is a cavernous glacier rightly popular with tourist groups. You can start in Engelberg (elevation 1059 metres) and walk the whole way but the first section is mountain-goat steep and would add hours to the journey.

Instead, I cheat, get off at the Trubsee stop (elevation 1800 metres) and follow the signs (they say Melchsee-Frutt is three hours and 40 minutes away) to where a meandering and somewhat underwhelming gravel path leads around to the rear.

Above me towers Titlis, its bright white ice mantle twinkling in the August sun and the shadows of cable cars crinkling over its ridges as they glide upward on what look like pieces of black string strung between electricity pylons.

It's all a bit industrial to begin with, the stop seemingly undergoing an upgrade and as a result looking a bit like a building site dotted with machinery and equipment – not exactly the sort of plant I was hoping for – but then the road takes a right-hand turn away from the station and the shore of Lake Trub edges into view.

It's not the biggest of lakes but it does feature a little landing stage where rowing boats can be taken out for a "suggested" fee of 10 Swiss francs ($13) an hour. Not that there's anyone around to collect it. There are also two little A-frame Swiss chalet-style houses parked, picture postcard perfect, at the far end of the lake and, unexpectedly, several cardboard cutouts of a cartoonishly irritated cow holding a placard which says: "Ich esse lieber grass tatt mull, danke." This translates as "I prefer eating grass instead of garbage, thank you" and is a polite injunction to take your rubbish with you instead of strewing it around the place like Christmas revellers at, say, Coogee beach.

The path, which is marked out by little red and white flags painted on rocks, then begins to climb upwards at a sometimes alarming angle. It's a little challenging – the myswitzerland website describes it as "medium difficulty" – but not overly so for anyone with a half-decent fitness level.

How Julie Andrews flitted about these sorts of slopes in a big old dress and sensible shoes while singing her heart out is anybody's guess. Certainly the red-faced middle-aged English couple I pass sitting at the side of the path after about half an hour would be hard pressed to push out a single note let alone a chorus of Edelweiss. I think one of their Favourite Things would be an oxygen tank.

After 90 minutes of hard walking and plenty of stops to catch my breath, sip water and take the millions of photographs that will never do the reality justice, I reach the 2220-metre high Jochpass. This is where the chairlifts from Trubsee deposit those not silly enough to have spent an hour and a half pushing burning thighs up rocky slopes strewn with blue and white Alpine flowers and the unmarked graves of the lesser-known, untalented Von Trapps.

There is a modern but traditionally built hotel here – and a bar with an outdoor terrace where a glass of local beer is almost de rigueur. If you close your eyes and squint you can imagine it covered in snow and smug, expensively attired skiers.

The next section of the hike is pretty much all downhill to Engstlensee, the second of the lakes. The path is more serpentine, less steep, and essentially wends its way east under the shadow of a chairlift which would deposit you just short of the lake should you be lazy enough to take it.

This section is also popular locally with mountain bikers who take the chairlift up to Jochpass, their bikes fastened to the seat next to them, and then hurtle back down along the wonderfully named Hells-Bells biking trail.

It's a gentle stroll broken only by the quiet rumble of the ski lift as the chairs roll over the supporting pylons, and it's not long before the edge of Engstlen Lake appears in the distance, the water at its edges shockingly crystal clear before turning a deep blue further in. As I watch, a tiny rowing boat slides in to view, leaving a knife-edge wake behind it.

The path here has flattened out. The blue flowers are still with me but there are fewer than before. As always on walks like this I feel useless not knowing what they are (clustered bellflowers, I later discover) and promise myself to learn more about plant species all the while knowing I never will.

There are more purple-flowered thistles beside the path, more animal dung – though no animals – and precious little birdlife. There are more people here – though still very few – and one couple who must be in their late 80s and with whom I am heartily impressed until it dawns that by the lakeside at Engstlensee there's a car park, a hotel and a cafe featuring cheerful red-and-white deckchairs, sunshades and hamme mit kartoffelsalat for 19 Swiss francs.

I don't take advantage of any of them, just skirt the lake, follow the path through the Engstlenalp Hotel grounds and a cluster of timber chalets and barns that dot a gentle pasture on the other side and where I encounter a large group of Chinese tourists on mountain bikes who have just cycled from Melchsee-Frutt.

In the middle distance the hulking, ragged, snow-spattered bluffs of the Bernese Alps glisten and a gentle, rising path meanders towards them. It's so frighteningly idyllic as to be lethal to anyone suffering from Stendhal Syndrome.

Professor John Tyndall, a one-time vice-president of the Alpine Club, wrote in 1866 that this was "one of the most charming spots of the alps". Tyndall first visited in 1856 for scientific purposes, took up mountain climbing and then went back almost every summer from then on so he knew of what he spoke.

Below me to the left, on the other side of a deep ravine, rank upon rank of pine trees stand to attention against a green background – a stark contrast to my right, where the path edges around the base of a grey rock face that has, in places, cracked and slid across the track.

A few more twists and turns, including a narrow section where there is a cable handhold hammered into the rock face, the landscape opens up and flattens out. I am, it feels, on top of the world, ma.

Up here, where there's very little "up" and plenty of "down", there's, unexpectedly, a small hamlet of a few houses, a bakery, a church, a cafe-cum-gasthof and not much else except a small roundabout and, disappointingly, a young couple coming from the other direction pushing a … pram.

From this I deduce that the rest of the hike isn't exactly arduous. And so it proves.

The road out across the plateau (we are 2000 metres above sea level here) is pretty much flat, and it's got to be said that the third lake, the Tannensee, isn't much of a lake. Well, let's be honest, it's not a lake at all but the "Three Lakes and Man-Made Reservoir Walk" doesn't trip off the tongue quite as smoothly as "Four Lakes Walk", does it? And what it might be in German or the local Alemannic Swiss German dialect almost made me swallow my tongue just thinking about it.

At the far end of the reservoir the road forks into a tarmac road for the little blue-and-yellow toy tourist "train", the Fruttli-Zug, which chugs back and forth between the guesthouse in Tannalp and the village of Melchsee-Frutt. The other fork is a simple gravel path which meanders across country over a series of gentle rises which eventually bring you out on the southern banks of the Melchsee.

There is a small stone church plonked right on the edge of the lake here. Architecturally, it's nothing special but with a backdrop of green hills and the alps in the distance, it's dangerously handsome (see previous comments re Stendhal Syndrome).

I finish the walk – it's taken about 4½ hours due to all the photo op stops – by taking the cable-car from Melchsee-Frutt down to Stockalp. It's a short 12-minute ride in a small, circular gondola but it floats over some magnificent countryside and then drops vertiginously past grazing cows to the final stop.

Here, I miss the bus to Lucerne by a minute or two and have to wait an hour for the next one. Luckily, there is a buzzy little guesthouse nearby (the Gasthof Waldhaus) where I order a half litre of Erdinger weissbier. I am, after more than four hours of walking, somewhat parched. The beer, when it arrives, is a thing of beauty.

Maybe there's something in this Stendhal Syndrome after all.

See also: The world's most beautiful country to see by train

See also: Six incredible hiking trails you've (probably) never heard of

TRIP NOTES

MORE

www.traveller.com.au/switzerland 

myswitzerland.com

swiss.com

alpenclub.ch/en

STAY

In Engelberg, the wooden Hotel Alpenclub is a charming boutique hotel with several restaurants, a cosy bar and rear terrace with great views of the mountains. The original building dates back to 1780 and it was first used as a hotel in 1875. Bed and breakfast for two starts from about $430 a night.

HIKE

Said to be one of the most beautiful walks in central Switzerland, the 17-kilometre Four Lakes Hike can take anything between three and four hours depending on your level of fitness and determination. The official myswitzerland website calls it a "challenging" hike of medium difficulty and best taken from July-October. There are places to stop and eat/drink but take a bottle of water anyway as the ascents can be strenuous. Sunscreen and a hat are musts, too.

FLY

Swiss International Airlines fly to Switzerland from the main Australian cities. See swiss.com for details of flight times and prices.

TRAVEL

The Swiss Travel Pass (see myswitzerland.com/rail) covers unlimited travel on public buses, boats and trains around the country, gives holders up to 50 per cent discount on mountain railways and cableways and free entry to more than 490 museums. Children under 16 travel free with a guardian using the pass.

Keith Austin travelled as a guest of Switzerland Tourism.

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