Bananas and papayas, caviar and coffee – none of them typically Swiss products. But in one corner of Canton Bern you can find all of them, all home-grown. It’s a totally tropical side to Swiss life that many people have never seen – and all achieved thanks to a giant tunnel.
Back in 1999 the excavations started for the deep Lötschberg Base Tunnel linking the cantons of Bern and Valais with a new high-speed line. One unexpected by-product of the tunnelling was an awful lot of warm water, which at 20c was too hot to pump straight into the Kander River. At that temperature the spawning salmon would’ve died. So another solution was found.
Cue the Tropenhaus in Frutigen. It uses the warm water (gushing through at 100 litres per second) to heat its tropical plant houses, where all manner of weird and wonderful fruit and flowers now grow. Not just 26 types of banana but also starfruit, guavas, lychees and mangoes, plus a whole array of orchids. It’s a fragrant – and steamy – place to spend some time.
Outside are the huge fish pools where the slightly cooler water (12 to 18c) is a perfect place to breed Siberian sturgeon. Even in the depths of a Swiss winter (not that there’s been much of one this year), the fish are cosy and warm in their water world. And producing eggs, also known as caviar, which is on sale in the shop: 315 francs for 50g! That makes the home-grown espresso at 29 francs look like a bargain.
There’s also a restaurant which features 101 ways to serve sturgeon. But the main reason to go is simply to see the plants that don’t really belong at 800m up in the Alps. It’s certainly cheaper than flying to the Caribbean.
The Tropenhaus (closed Mondays) is a short walk from Frutigen station but make sure you get on the right train in Bern. If you board the one that uses the new tunnel (at 34.6km it’s currently the longest land tunnel in the world), you’ll whizz under the mountains to Brig. Take the slow train instead, the one that stops along the way and goes on to use the original tunnel from 1913.