April 12th 2018
Editor’s Intro: With the 50th anniversary of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service approaching next year, a pilgrimage to one of the ultimate Bond locations seems to be in order. Indeed, both Tom and Chris have mentioned the possibility of a JBR meet up at Piz Gloria in 2019 for just that occasion. JBR listener Simon Firth recently made the journey there, and he was gracious enough to provide us with an account of his experience and a glimpse of what you might expect should you decide to go.
Article and photos by Simon Firth
When one thinks of locations with very finite and specific things to see from the Bond films, Piz Gloria comes if not at the very top, then certainly within the top three. Competing locations could include the Thailand island from Golden Gun and, for me, Chateau de Chantilly from A View to a Kill.
I have already seen these two other locations and as close as Piz Gloria is to me in the UK, for some reason I could never visualise my making the pilgrimage to the site. This was until a friend suggested a four day trip and immediately therein, got on with booking flights.
Built in 1968 in co-operation with the Bond producers, this must be the first time the fiction came before the fact. I am not aware of what the revolving restaurant was going to be called prior to building but to be sure, after the completion, the filming and the opening of the 2970 metre high restaurant, it was named after the fictionalised location in Fleming’s book, published six years earlier in 1963.
Getting to Piz Gloria from the UK really couldn’t have been any more simple and efficient. A journey of many changes but such was the efficiency, to all intents and purposes, it felt like a door to door journey. Below is the detail.
It is best to fly into Zurich. Zurich airport is part of the same complex as the train station. From there one asks for a return ticket to Murren via Berne. A change at Berne to a neighbouring platform will take one to Interlaken Ost. A further change will take you to Lauterbrunnen, where they filmed the stock car chase. From Lauterbrunnen, a gondola takes you smartly up to Grutschalp. And from Grutschalp, an olde worlde train of seemingly just one carriage with controls at either end, takes you to the picture postcard village of Murren. All of these changes are but a few meters away from each other.
A village of no cars save for services and the occasional baggage help, it has a main street, which one might call a wide path, few restaurants, no noisy apres ski nonsense, a single funicular and a cable car that can take you to the first meaningful area for skiing. This of Birg.
From Birg, one takes a further cable car to Piz Gloria.
Before we get there though, it quickly becomes apparent that ‘things’ are tastefully and quirkily done in Murren. They are clearly proud of their association, but not beholden to it. An occasional four-bar blast of the Bond theme can occasionally be heard around the village. A restaurant unfussily offers a Pizza Gloria. The cable car to Birg begins its journey with a short intro to the SPECTRE theme before offering commentary in various languages as to what is on offer. The cable car to Gimmelwald is equipped with a similar commentary but is introduced with a few bars from Casino Royale incidental music. The cable cars display a small 007 logo bottom right on the outside. And while the weather encouraged outside consumption, there was a mid-level mountain igloo bar that while on the outside suggested nothing more imposing than a mound of snow, inside was delightfully furnished with ice tables, fur lined chairs and a perfectly humorous James Bond ice sculpture that was placed in front of a snow walled rifle effect of the gun barrel.
So far, so Bondian.
But what of Piz Gloria? As one travels on the Birg to Piz Gloria cable car, the excitement cannot be over stated as to one’s expectations. Designed by Konrad Wolf, an architect from Berne, the real life images combine with all that has been seen countless times from viewings of the fan favourite film. The book location for Piz Gloria was near St Moritz and as the local language was Romansh, the name Piz was derived from the local term for mountain peak. One can see the fascination for the Bond films even then as in Switzerland, the word Piz has no meaning. Yet still the name stuck.
We were blessed with what can only be described as perfect weather for the two days we were there. These two days were neatly sandwiched in between a previous week of, subsequent ski-perfect, continual snowfall, and what appeared to be a forecast of dreary clouds and typical white-out visibility the following week.
On stepping out of the cable car and into Piz Gloria, what is immediately apparent, and may also be known from viewing recent images, is that the square helipad of the film has become a straight sided circular construction which has also lost the staircase to the lower levels. Things have certainly changed since the Bond crew were there.
Wandering inside from the ski floor to the utility areas, the attention to detail for the Bond fan in no way excludes the casual visitor. Light grey 007 logos against dark grey carpets, silhouette Bond and girl figures, clapperboard screens highlighting scenes from the movie relevant to where you’re standing all add to the historical nature of the location. But where this attention really abounds, and I apologise in advance for lowering the tone of this script, is in (at least) the Gents toilets. Above the urinals is an aluminium sign featuring a 007 logo with the words underneath, Shake, Don’t Drip. There are also sensors around the enclosure that trigger appropriate and hilarious audio excerpts from the film. To wit;
“It’s so nice to see a man around here.”
“You’re very confident of yourself.”
“What are you doing here?”
I daresay there will be similar goings on in the Ladies’ but that will all be for someone else to report upon.
As mentioned, the layout has changed since the film. I must admit, I initially went in search of the coat of arms that was in the filmic lobby. The lobby has changed, the arms have been moved – to the 007 Floor. What is splendid though is that they have retained the spiral staircase circular bronze-looking divider effect; this of the same art that Tracy yanked a SPECTRE agent’s head through.
Before heading for lunch, we headed for the 007 Floor. A wonderful space dedicated entirely to the filming, the history of the film, images and information aplenty. One learns that the portion of the spiral staircase used to crown the SPECTRE agent was in fact bamboo. One experiences in a downward facing video what it must have felt like to have fallen down the Gimmelwald cliff during the ski chase. One rides in the helicopter to Piz Gloria – sort of. There is also an interactive ‘table’, a la the GestureTek interactive surface computing platform as seen in Quantum of Solace whereupon one can flick, enlarge, reveal and swipe various images, videos and information. The hallway to the floor is decorated with the posters from all the Bond films; there is a history of the Bond Bollinger connection that started with Live and Let Die; there is a cinema that looks at the history of the build.
I cannot talk highly enough about this floor. It does fully appeal to the casual observer as well as the full-on, vodka fuelled intra-niched nerd. It is more about the exploring and the identifying of Easter eggs, I guess, as one might find in DVDs.
Winding one’s way up the spiral staircase, taking in the aforementioned bronze siding, one really does believe one will be met by the Angels of Death sat amongst Christmas decorations, presents and Joanna Lumley’s knitting. Life has moved on and the previously open plan format has been broken up by the necessary central kitchen and serving area. Shifting focus to the windows and the 12 metre diameter revolving floor unveils the utter splendour of the view which, once per hourly revolution, takes in the Eiger and the slope down which Bond, assisted ably by Willy Bogner and his team, escaped amidst bullets and mayhem. Sitting down for lunch in a restaurant area that in 1990 had been expanded upon from the original build, the outer circle ceiling slatted wood has been replaced by something white but otherwise, one is fairly and squarely in the dining area of the OHMSS scenes.
There was a universally agreed impression that we should have a vodka martini but as they were promoting Bollinger, it seemed only fair to order a half bottle of their bubbled wine. The plates were 007 logoed and one could order a ‘007 burger’, the bun of which was seared with another logo – perhaps the only slightly tacky gesture to be in existence in this location. It is best to book and reserve a table for the afternoon. We reserved from 2pm to 5pm via their portal, had emailed confirmations and assertions that one did not have to ‘dress’ for lunch, or indeed take shoes other than ski boots. We arrived a little early for the lunch and stayed until 4pm. It is all very relaxing, there is no impression that the table would be needed thereafter and so we spent and we consumed. If the weather and the views co-operate, there is very little reason to be anywhere else in the world.
I normally shy away from overt displays of fandom. I don’t wear the T-shirt, I don’t attend the conventions and apart from some very tasteful foreign art from Dr No and From Russia that has been properly conserved and framed behind museum grade glass, I don’t adorn my walls with posters or table with ash trays that have had the logo 007 stamped to their posteriors. That said, and again referencing the tastefulness and quirkiness of the village and mountain top, my friend did consent to the need to wear a dress shirt and open black tie. He was in good company.
We were passed by a couple of people who both had what appeared to be jets affixed to their backs on top of matt black ski suits. The ‘jets’ were in fact speakers hooked up to a playback function and they went about their day smashing out to the universe bars from the Bond theme.
Such was the playful nature of the environment that one almost expected to see in the gift shop some SPECTRE jackets in yellow with black arm stripes. And sure enough, one did. I didn’t purchase one.
There was one element that to the casual observer might have raised a quizzical eyebrow. In the restaurant area, there was wall-mounted, a large painting of Ursula Andress in her seminal beach scene from Dr No. Also of Swiss origins, indeed she was born in Berne, Ursula Andress was featured in the book, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service when, in Piz Gloria, Irma Bunt points her out to James Bond as one of the socialite guests. Dr No, the film, was released in 1962. OHMSS, the book, was published in 1963. And thus all the bases are indelibly covered.
The skiing in Murren is limited. For an intermediate skier, the entire area can be covered in a couple of days. We were there for four nights which was possibly a day too long. Of course, the flip side of this is that the longer one is there, the greater the likelihood for good weather at some point; although, even this can be discarded as per my weather reports of above.
As if there needed to be any further timely connections between fact and fiction, during the stay, we were lucky enough to witness a couple of avalanches. These were on a safe slope, at a safe distance, in a safe environment. All of which is to say, we were nowhere near them. The noise is incredible; one is woken up by almost machine gun fire-like noises and upon spotting from where the noise comes, one is greeted by almighty clouds of falling snow falling irrevocably to the lowest most point taking anything in its path.
Leaving Piz Gloria, there is only one piste. A black run which drops away with an impressive sense of urgency but pretty soon afterwards eases up into a steady and palatable red run. The skiing in general is not challenging on piste and as challenging as you want to make it off piste. That said, it was positively wonderful to ski away with the John Barry ‘Ski Chase’ and ‘Main Theme’ music in your ears.
article and photos by Simon Firth