From Switzerland With Love

After a few days in Grindelwald and the trip to Jungfraujoch, both of which were pretty touristy, I treated myself (again, I’m just always “treating myself,” aren’t I?) to a sojourn in the teeny tiniest village I could possibly find that still qualified as a “village.”

This was Gimmelwald. But it’s nothing like Grindelwald. The tiny town is situated on the edge of a cliff overlooking a valley (the village on the valley floor is called Lauterbrunnen and is big enough to have a train station, at least). Gimmelwald is only accessible by funicular, in true Swissalpen style. There are only about 20 houses in the whole place and, according to Rick Steves, almost everyone in the town has the same last name of Brunner (and yes, the lady with whom I booked my accommodation was indeed named Brunner).

For sale at the “Honesty Shop,” one franc per egg!

I stayed at the  “mountain hostel” and met some really nice American girls to hang out with. Within fifteen minutes of my arrival, one of them gave me the following instructions regarding dinner: “Walk straight down the dirt road, about five minutes. You’ll pass cows on your right, but if you go past the goat hutch you’ve gone too far. When you see a little wooden house with purple flowers in the windows, ring the bell. A woman named Helga will sell you sausage and cheese.” I couldn’t resist, but did exactly that. Helga Brunner wasn’t at home, but her cousin, Rolf Brunner was, and he showed me their cheese-curing room.

The cheese he had to sell me was one and two years old – this year’s cheese was still too young (you can see it on the shelves!). He let me taste each, the “Jungkase” or “young cheese” and the old. The old was much stronger, and the young already hard and crumbly but still smooth-tasting. I opted for the jungkase.

The rind of each wheel of cheese is stamped with a number, according to the order of its production.

He also sold me some beef sausage, and together that made a perfect dinner. Thanks, friend Rolf!

You’re welcome, Steffibunny!

After this, a couple of us took the cablecar up to the next town (Mürren) for a “Volksabend” or “Folkloric Evening,” which turned out to be a free concert featuring traditional dancing, yodeling, playing of the traditional alphorn, and twirling of the Swiss flag. This was particularly enjoyable because, unlike the tourist traps in Salzburg and Innsbruck, the people performing at this evening were part of real societies preserving their historic culture. For instance, we saw the “yodeling choir” and several traditional dance troupes. These are all locals who participate in these clubs in their spare time just for their own enjoyment, not as a gag for rich tourists.

But the reason most people go to tiny, picturesque Gimmelwald, is as a stepping stone to the local summit, the Schilthorn. The Schilthorn itself is nothing much to look at, kind of bald and barren-looking actually, but it’s the view from the top that make it one of my favorite places I’ve ever been. I would come back here before I went back to Jungfraujoch, in a heartbeat. One of the biggest attractions up there is the Piz Gloria, a 360-degree rotating restaurant. It. Was. Incredible.

Apparently, part of From Russia With Love was filmed here, and they offer a James Bond Breakfast Special: The biggest breakfast buffet you’ve ever seen (in true Swiss style – coldcuts, cheeses, breads, butter, soft-boiled eggs, muesli, and some scrambled eggs and sausage) at the center of the circular restaurant, and also bottomless coffee, AND a glass of champagne, just to make you feel completely glamorous. So two Americans from Ohio and I opted WAY in, and sat for almost two hours just sipping, eating, chatting, and watching the mountains from eye-level. It might be the best breakfast I’ll ever eat.

After that, we all hiked back down to Gimmelwald! Well actually, I let them get about a 20 mintues head start, because I really prefer hiking alone. I’m not antisocial or misanthropic, just that when I hike I tend to be a follower, not a leader, and I go into “horse-mode,” and just follow the butt of the person in front of me without making my own way. So I said, “no offense!” and waved the other two girls on their way, and spent a few extra minutes hanging out on the observation deck.

Needless to say, the views were unbelievable. The day was almost cloudless, so you could see as far as Italy in one direction, to Germany in another, and to France in another.

The Schilthorn boasts “the best views of Jungfrau,” and I think they’re right. You can see them perfectly lined up here: Eiger, Münch, and Jungfrau.

The hike down is not too long, 1600 m difference in altitude from top to bottom (that’s about 4,800 feet!), and it took me about 5 hours total (with a lot of breaks though, and at a leisurely pace). That sounds like an awful lot to me, but this chart on the Schilthorn says it’s true! It didn’t feel that hard, but my glutes were feeling it for days afterward haha.


Here’s the view from the top down:

You can see part of my trail, that teeny thing at the bottom!

I can’t think of a better way to spend 5 hours. The top of the trail was still snowed-in, so the first half hour was spent slipping and sliding over snow-slash-glaciers, but after I descended a little, the trail was clear.

I told you the Schilthorn itself wasn’t that pretty…

One of the best things I found on the way down was a glacial lake. It was completely clear, and had this subtle blue tinge. Half of it was still frozen as snow, and it was SO clear that I actually filled my waterbottle from it.

Even in my bottle, the water was spotless, and tasted great!

All the publicity for the region claims that the hiking around the Schilthorn features some of “the most beautiful alpine scenery most people will see in their entire lives.” And I absolutely have to agree.

This is like The Lion King, if The Lion King happened in Switzerland instead of Africa.

Yes, my camera really took this picture. Yes, this is a real place.

My leg muscles may have remembered this hike for a few days, but I’m pretty sure I will remember it forever.

Jungfraujoch – Top of Europe

No trip to the Lake Thun area would be complete without a visit to the highest train station in Europe – the Jungfraujoch. Nestled in the saddle between the Münch and Jungfrau peaks, at 3,500 meters (11,400 feet), it was [imho] well worth the outrageously expensive train fare (180 Euros, but slightly less with a Eurail pass). I know, a number like that for a train ride almost makes my heart stop (that’s like, a week’s worth of hostels, or a month’s worth of Starbucks… yes I could easily spend 180 euro on Starbucks in one month. Don’t judge me.), but if you’ve already come so far, why not go all the way? Besides, who knows when/if I’ll ever get the chance again?

At night, I could see the train station and weather center from the Niederhorn:

That little black dot in the depression between the peaks – that’s Jungfraujoch.

After coming down from the Niederhorn, I finished my boat trip across Lake Thun and took a train from Interlaken to the little town of Grindelwald (yes, like the elder-wand wizard from Harry Potter), which is a little toursity but still very cute, and situated in some gorgeous scenery (when it’s not too fogged-in to see it):

From Grindelwald you take a special, privately-operated train to the top. The ride itself was… kind of a disaster, but also kind of funny. It was made terrible and hilarious by the HORDES of Indian tourists. Now, this is not racism. This is an honest assessment of several hundred of collectively some of the rudest people I’ve ever met, and I would say the same of them if they were Chinese, or Spanish, or American.

First of all, they came in massive groups. I’m talking tours of 50+ people, so that when they’re walking anywhere it’s like being caught in a stampede. There’s the guide in front with his little flag or sign or whatever, and then 50 or 60 people charging blindly ahead, pretending you don’t exist, and certainly not caring if they elbow you in the stomach, or step on your toes, or actually knock you over, which actually happened to me when I got caught in the middle of a group. Obviously, an apology or even a “Pardon me” would be out of the question.

I ended up on a train car in which I was the only non-Indian person present, except for one Swiss couple. But there were no seats in the car. The Swiss couple and I were standing. Now, I’m not trying to be a biddy, but I didn’t pay 150 euros to *stand* on my train ride up the mountain (this is of course the company’s fault, not the tourists’. Also, you should understand, this is a very steep ride as trains go, so the incline makes standing on this train actually pretty difficult). So I’m looking around for somewhere to perch, and the only place is one of those folding seats near the door. There was an Indian man sitting in one, and across from him was sitting… his camera bag. There are people standing on this train, and his camera bag was occupying a seat. I indicated to him that I wanted to sit there (he didn’t speak English, and I don’t speak Hindi), but he refused to move his bag. So I picked it up, handed it to him, and sat down. My indignation was making me rather ballsy.

A little while later, I hear someone’s cell phone going off. It’s at full volume, playing really loud, waily Indian music. I just assumed it was a ringtone, so I didn’t really care. But then it kept playing. And kept playing. It evidently wasn’t a ringtone. Some man a few seats over was just playing his music at full-blast (nor was he showing a video to a friend or anything, the phone was just sitting on the windowsill playing at full volume). I hate to be so prickly, but think about this: I’ve paid 150 euros to be on this train, it is my airspace too, and while I actually kind of like Indian music, I don’t particularly want to listen to it while I’m in Switzerland on my Swiss adventure to the top of Europe. So I walked over to the man and indicated (again, the language barrier) that I would like him to turn his music off. And he did, which was very good of him. But when I got back to my seat not 30 seconds later, the camera bag was back! So I picked it up again, and again handed it to its owner, and sat myself in the seat.

A little while later came the cherry on top of this whole train ride. Along the ride, which is mostly underground through a tunnel in the mountain, are a couple stops where the trains going up stop to let the trains pass that are going down. At each place, the train stops for a few minutes, and there are windows in the rock wall where you can look out over the scenery. So we’re at one of these stops, and the whole thing is just marvelously, pristinely beautiful. The snow outside the window is blinding white (actually though, they don’t let you take the trip without sunglasses because lengthy exposure can cause sunblindness), and we’re looking out over this uninhabited landscape – no humans whatsoever, not even a footprint in sight.

If it doesn’t look “blindingly white” in the picture, it’s only because I took the photo through a window that was not “spotlessly clean.”

So we’re stopped here, and the train doors are open. There is a trash can about 10 feet from the door of the train. As I sit watching, an Indian woman gets up from her seat carrying a banana peel. She goes to the door of the train and stands between the Swiss couple (who were also sitting/standing at the folding chairs opposite the door). She throws the banana peel through the Swiss couple, in the general direction of the trash can. When the peel inevitably misses the can… she goes right back to her seat. This woman just threw the trash on the ground of this pristine, spotless train stop in the untouched wilderness. I know it sounds dramatic, but… it felt quite obscene. And it wasn’t just me feeling this way – the Swiss couple looked horrified (No wonder, their country is probably the cleanest in the world after the Scandinavian countries.). So I guess the only thing to do was to get off the train and throw the banana peel away myself. Which is what I did. It took me all of 5 seconds, and it wasn’t very difficult.

Ok, so that was my soapbox about insufferable tourists. I know there must be many moments when I myself am an insufferable tourist, but I do everything in my power to prevent it (sometimes when you don’t speak the language and people are yelling at you in Italian for reasons you don’t understand, it’s hard not to make a spectacle of yourself…). I think the necessary thing is to be conscious of common stereotypes about your country or ethnicity and to actively work against them. For instance, I don’t know how many times I’ve experienced the following reactions: “Wait, but, I thought Americans didn’t care about going to Europe and generally never leave America?” or, “Are you in Europe because you ran out of things to see in America?” or “Wait, you’re American, why do you know where the Czech Republic is?” (truly, this last one is word-for-word). I suppose I work against this stereotype by A. Being in Europe at all, B. Being generally interested in the history, food, culture, language of the places I’m visiting, and C. Trying to visit places most tourists do not, such as Ravenna, or Mantua, or Gimmelwald, or Rovio.

Ok, enough self-congratulation, I now feel *amazing* about  myself – let’s move on.

There was plenty to do at the “Top of Europe” – several viewing platforms where you could see not only both peaks (Münch and Jungfrau), but also the whole Grindelwald valley and Lake Thun (but it was a bit cloudy, so no great pictures of the latter). These of course made some great photo ops:

The observation deck at the top of “The Sphinx,” also a weather station.

Imperfect view of the valley below, but still a pretty picture!

The line to take a photo at this particular spot was pretty long… But pretty worth it!

I bribed a German couple into taking jumping photos… by also taking jumping photos of them. It was a win-win.

Now it was SUPER cold at that altitude, so it was necessary to come back inside every so often to warm up/wait for feeling to return to my toes. Unfortunately, this was a little difficult to achieve while walking through The World’s Longest Ice Tunnel… (or so they told us, but I feel like there must be a longer one somewhere. Possibly in Antarctica.)

A bit chilly.

But this is precisely why they were selling little bottles of cognac at the cafe!

Clearly, this is what high-Fstop DSLRs are made for…

There is also a huge expanse where people can walk out onto the snow as far as they want (apparently hardcore people do actually hike up here, so nearby there’s a mountain hut/pension where you can stay the night).

All the little people walking out on the snow…!

This is where the path eventually leads. To me it looks like (and is!) basically an ice-road going between the mountains, to who knows where!

There was also a fun-looking zipline over the snow that I didn’t try (I didn’t have gloves, and I didn’t feel like spending an extra 30 euros on a pair they were selling). Alas! But after being thoroughly chilled outside, I warmed up in the restaurant with a bowl of potato soup, some hot mulled cider/rum thing (they call it “Rhumpunsch”), and some Swiss bread and butter. Yum yum yummmmm!


Paragliding on the Niederhorn

(Click on the pictures to make them big and pretty!)

My first view of the Niederhorn was from the boat on Lake Thun:

There it is, that big triangular mountain in the middle!

And here’s how we got up it:

Once I was up there and saw the views, I just couldn’t bear to leave. I’d been looking for a place to rest and relax, and this was definitely it. The hotel at the top was decorated like a lodge (except modern and clean), excellent lunch and dinner were included in the price, and at night it was lonely and quiet, the better to wrap yourself in a blanket and lay on the deck and look at the stars. The summit (about 1900 meters, so not actually that high compared to some other place in Switzerland) has a panoramic 360 degree view of pretty much everything. You can look across the lake to the south and see the three famous peaks: Eiger, Münch, and Jungfrau (In that order, from left to right. I gleaned somewhere that the names come from folklore: the Münch (monk) guards the Jungfrau (the maiden) from the evil Eiger (ogre).

Jungfrau is a little hidden behind that cloud…

Or to the north you can look out over the edge of the Niederhorn to look down on the valley floor three thousand feet below…

This was probably my favorite view. I spent hours lying on my stomach right on the edge, just looking. At night, the clanging of the cowbells would rise up from the valley floor so clearly you could hear the individual bells, even though the cows were too far away to be seen. The mountains have strange acoustics…!

Every night I would watch the sun set to the west…

And the herds of friendly mountain ibex kept me company! I’m actually not kidding, it really was that idyllic…

I knew I’d pass my 22nd birthday while on this trip, but had been looking for a special way to celebrate it. When I got here on the 22nd, I knew I wanted to stay in this spot through my birthday on the 24th. On the 23rd, I spent an afternoon watching the paragliders take off from the top of the Niederhorn, and I knew: this is what I wanted for my birthday.

I mean… how could you not want this?

So I made a reservation for the day of my birthday…!

This is what I expected would happen:

After all, I’d seen probably 30 or so take off the day before, and the day of my birthday was clear and beautiful. Absolutely perfect! Except… my guide and I couldn’t get airborne. The winds weren’t quite right. So we hiked down a bit and tried again. Still no luck. So we hiked down further and tried again. And again and again. We tried six times in total, and at the end of 6 hours (he had told me we’d be out about 2 hours) we were halfway down the mountain, sunburned, thirsty, hungry, tired, AND my parachute had dragged me through a nice pile of cow dung on the fifth attempt. This was no longer my lovely birthday present, and definitely not worth the couple hundred dollars I was paying for the perfect paragliding experience… So the guide and I called it off, we hiked the rest of the way down the mountain (and he proceeded to hit on me and ask me to dinner while we discussed his wife and son… ummm… Awk. Womp womp.), and I took the cablecar back up to my hotel.

What should have been…

Magical Lake Thun

In the Milan train station, while waiting for a horrifically delayed train, I met a charming old British man named Phillip who had just come from Switzerland. Where, I asked him. Where should I do in Switzerland? (By this point, I had absolutely no game plan about where I wanted to go in Switzerland, I was desperate for suggestions).

Thun, he said. Go to Thun.

It sounded like something out of Lord of the Rings, but I he said it’s a charming village on a lake. Well that sounds perfect. So I wrote it down and thought no more about it.

Then in Lugano I met a tall, dark, handsome stranger who treated me to lunch. I was shameless about picking his brain as well, and what did he say? Thun! Go to Thun! And while you’re at it, take the boat ride down the lake from Thun to Interlaken, it’s gorgeous.

So it looked like all roads were leading to Thun – who was I to resist. So I booked a hotel that night in Thun and navigated the six different trains it took to get there (a landslide in the Lucerne district was making train travel complicated). And they were absolutely right! Thun was a quaint but bustling town (hardly a village, sorry Phillip) on the western end of Lake Thun (or as they call lakes, Thunersee).

A map of the Lake Thun region. On it, you can see many of the places I visited: Thun to the west; on the north side of the lake, Beatenberg (the city under the Niederhorn); Interlaken at the East end; and just south of it, Grindelwald; And it’s too small to be on this map, but just southwest of Grindelwald is Gimmelwald. Do I regret spending almost all my Switzer-time within this same 50km area? Not a bit, because it’s collectively the most beautiful place I’ve ever been.

I got there just in time to see this rainbow:

And just in time to catch the sunset view of the lake. Though the good thing is that actually, the sun was setting behind me, but the light on the mountains and the water was spectacular. Here follows an orgy of pretty pictures to click through (and click to enlarge!):

The next day, after my sojourn to Steffisburg, I returned to Thun and took tall-dark-and-handsome’s advice and got on the boat traveling down the lake to Interlaken. It was an absolutely glorious day. Standing in the sun could be too hot, but on the water with the wind blowing everything felt perfect. And looked perfect. Get ready, cuz here comes a second orgy of pretty pictures!

Our noble steed – the Beatus! (“blessed” – I like it!)

A castle, just chillin by the lake. It’s casual.

When the outside got a little too windy for my hair, I enjoyed a glass of wine and a spectacular view from the on-board restaurant. In Switzerland, wine is cheaper than coffee, so we crossed the lake a little more buzzed than caffeinated.

I always think videos are better than photos for conveying the scale of the space. Be sure to note the perfectly turquoise water and how it sparkles in the sun!

As I was enjoying the breeze on the deck, I leafed through some pamphlets of things to do in the area (all in German, but I looked at the pictures). One advertised some summit called the “Niederhorn”, and the picture had an ibex (the mountain sheep with the big curved horns) standing in front of a spectacular view. I looked at my phone, I had a couple hours to kill. Maybe I’ll take the funicular to the top, I thought. The pamphlet said “Beatenburg.” I looked at the boat’s destination label. “Naeste Halt: Beatenberg.” It was fate, I decided, so I grabbed my backpack, slapped down 4 euro on the table for the wine, and hopped off the boat!

To be continued…!


I Find My Hometown: Steffisburg [is a real place]

While staying in Thun in Switzerland, I saw a bus drive by that said “Steffisburg” on the destination label.

What? Could there be such a place? Could there really be a town lucky enough to be named after moi!? I had to find out. So I hopped on the bus and rode to the end of the line!

The bus was true to its word – within 10 minutes I was seeing my name everywhere!

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Other than the magical name, there wasn’t much else exciting about Steffisburg. It was a very cute, typically Swiss little town. Wooden houses, geraniums in every window box, and of course a picturesque stream running through the middle!

The Cablecars of Switzerland

After four days in Venice, I took off for not just the next city on my list, but the next country!

Unlike Italy, which is all about the art, the museums, and the cities, Switzerland is all about the the outdoors, the hiking, and the breathtaking views around almost every corner.

Through my whole time in Switzerland, I didn’t spend more than an hour or so in anything that could be considered a “city” (like Lugano, Zurich, Bern, Geneva), so unlike my blog posts through Italy, which each focused on one city, we will have to try a different approach to blogging Switzerland. Because, after all, one adorable small town in the mountains is much like another.

But here’s one thing all Swiss towns (and cities!) have in common: the funicular. It is almost impossible to get anywhere worth going without making at least one part of your trip in a cablecar or gondola.

These can be as cheap as 2.50 round trip, or as expensive as 85.00. But whatever I paid, I pretty much never regretted going – the higher you go, the better the scenery gets, no?

I took my first one in Bergamo (which is technically in Italy, but… whatever), when Steven and I took a daytrip there from Milan:

We took it from the citta bassa to the citta alta (those higher buildings in the picture), and the view was pretty fabulous:

A few days later, in Lugano (an Italian-speaking town just over the Swiss border), I took a cable car up to the tiny church of San Salvatore.

Up, up we go…!

And the views from the top were fabulous:

On June 20, I took a cablecar-cum-gondola from Lake Thun to the top of the Niederhorn, about 1900m up (this amazing spot, where I spent my birthday, will have its own post later).

It was a dizzying ride. About halfway up you stop in the village of Beatenburg, where you have to transfer from your lovely, rail-bound cable car, to an unsupported, wind-buffeted gondola.

My beautiful backpack, he/she still needs a name! Any suggestions? Giacomo, Wolfgang, Grendel…?

It was amazing to watch the lake I’d just traversed by boat gradually shrink as I went higher and higher!

And the views from the top were some of my absolute favorite (evidenced by the fact that I couldn’t bring myself to leave, so I spent three un-planned-for nights in the hotel at the top!)

Across the lake in Grindelwald, I took another gondola up to something called “First” which is apparently another summit. I say apparently because the day was rainy and so fogged in that I couldn’t see anything beyond the walls of my little gondola (it was wonderful actually, like traveling through blank white space). And when I got to the top, I couldn’t see a thing (I had planned on hiking back down, but by then it was raining just a little too hard). So at the top I ate some hot soup and drank a hot toddy and went back down through the same white mist.

According to Google, this is the view I was missing… Bummer. :-/

And finally, after staying in Grindelwald for a couple days (again, more details on this in another post), I took a several trains and a gondola up to a teeny-tiny, confusingly-similarly-named village called Gimmelwald, which is only accessible via gondola. From this little hamlet perched on the edge of a cliff, the cable car continues to the most spectacular summit yet, the Schilthorn (2900 meters, 9800 feet). Even though this was not the highest place I went in Switzerland, it’s view of those higher places was the best. Aka, when you’re on the Jungfrau (a famous mountain we’ll revisit later), you can’t actually see the Jungfrau.

(Actually that reminds me of a great anecdote about Harkness Tower in New Haven: Apparently Frank Lloyd Wright once said that if he could live one place in the world, it would be on the top of Harkness Tower, so he would never have to look at it, it is so ugly. Lulz.)

But anyway, the Schilthorn was absolutely magnificent:

I swear my camera actually took this picture. This is not just some postcard that I scanned in. The highest peak on the left is the Jungfrau. Please please please do click on the picture to make it bigger – it’s so pretty!

And that, my friends, concludes my cable-car tour of Switzerland. Actually, I think that made a nice overview of all the places I visited, some of which now I will blog about separately.

Auf wiedersehen!

Topographic Information – in real time

Since people keep asking, “Wait, where are you?” (It’s not just you, Steven Feis!)

Trip overview so far:

Rome –> Siena –> Florence –> Ravenna –> Bologna –> Mantua –> Milan –> Bergamo –> Sirmione (Lake Garda) –> Verona –> Venice –> Lugano –> Thun –> Niederhorn (Beaternberg) –> Grindelwald

And a zoom-in of Switzerland:

Understandably, the blog is behind me, so if you’ve been reading, as far as you know I’m still in Verona! But worry not, we’ll catch up eventually!