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Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Lauterbrunnen Trip

Lauterbrunnen Trip

I think I'm in danger of becoming a Euro-phile. We took a short 5 day trip to Lauterbrunnen Valley, for some hiking and sight-seeing, and I have to say, it's got to be the prettiest place I've seen for some time. In fact, in the US, I can only think of Grand Teton National Park or Glacier/Waterton Lakes National Park that's as pretty, and neither of those places have the infrastructure to support such a variety of activities.

Day 1: This was a transit day, for us to catch the train from Munich to Zurich, a transfer to Lucerne, a panoramic train to Interlaken Ost, and then a short hop to Lauterbrunnen. The scenic train was indeed beautiful --- there were faster connections but this was worth the two hours. After getting onto the Lauterbrunnen train, I realized that this was one of the trains that split in two, with one half going to Grindelwald and the other to Lauterbrunnen. At Wildersil, I stepped outside for a moment to see if there were any indicators as whether we were on the right track, but saw no sign. So I stepped back onto the train to ask another passenger. Lisa, unfortunately, decided that she would try to help me after I'd done that, and of course, after she stepped out the train took off, with me on it and her at the station. (Don't ask me why she thought it was a good idea to leave our luggage unattended) Well, there was nothing for me to do but to go on, and for her to stay. Once in Lauterbrunnen, I checked in at Hotel Staubbach, read a bit, and then went to the train station to pick Lisa up --- when the train came in an hour later. We got into the hotel just as a storm kicked in, complete with thunder and lightning.

Day 2: We got up for a scrumptious meal at the hotel, and went out to walk up to the Staubbach fall. The trail at the bottom of the fall goes up into a tunnel and then emerges behind the fall. I arrived here on last year's tour of the alps, and was pleased to see that it had lost none of its power to please me. The hotel staff recommended that we also see the Trummelbach falls, so after we packed up our stuff and checked out (leaving our stuff in the hotel's storage), we rented a couple of mountain bikes and took off towards Trummelbach falls. Trummelbach falls is a series of cascades inside a mountain that has been carved out with an elevator installed so visitors can view what the cascades look like on the inside. It's a tourist trap, but what a tourist trap! The views of the cascades are stunning, and the feeling of being in a canyon in many places are just too much.

After that, we rode around the valley, getting caught in rain after 3 hours were up, and returned to the hotel, where the staff were happy to lend us towels to dry off. Then we returned the bikes, ate lunch, and headed to the cable car station to head up to Murren, our home for the next 3 nights. Switzerland is expensive, and one never knows how expensive it is until confronted with the fare prices for trains and cable cars. There was a dizzying array of options --- we could buy tickets a la carte, buy a 6 day pass for all the transport on the Murren side of the mountains, buy a 6 day pass for all the transport in the region that gave a discount on some days but not others, and a discount on some routes but free travel on others, or a 14 day pass that had similar characteristics. After some evaluation, I decided on the 6 day pass for the Murren side of the valley, reasoning that one trip to Schilthorn was 100CHF, and getting to Murren and back was another 20CHF, so this was the one for us. (The other passes did not grant Schilthorn for free)

So up the cable car we went, which granted us great views of Wengen on the other side of the valley. It didn't look big to us a the time, but as we got used to the size of Murren and Gimmelwald, we would come to think of Wengen as the big town. The cable car ride wasn't that interesting, but the mountain train on the top that connected the car to Murren was stunning. Views loomed out at us as the train drove along the ridge at 30kph, giving us beautiful views. I shot picture after picture on my camera.

When we arrived at Murren, I looked at my map and realized that I had no clue where the Chalet Fontana was. By asking around, we eventually got to the vicinity, but I still walked past it once before finding it right across the street from the one supermarket in town. We got ourselves unpacked, Lisa took a nap, and then we headed out to Almendhubel for our first hike.

We got onto the Almendhubel funicular railway, which was quite an experience --- rather than a rail that climbed up and down via cogs, this was a rail that was pulled up with a cable. At the top, we saw a good view of the mountains and the strangest path I'd ever seen --- but the sign explained that this was a foot massage --- letting your feet experience different textures before giving them a good soaking. We then set out on the so-called Flower trail. However, before we even got half a mile in, it started pouring pretty hard, so Lisa made the call to head back down to Murren. We got back just as the rain stopped, in time for dinner at the Hotel Bellevue, where we both had the Rosti.

Day 3: The forecast for the day was good, so I planned to do a longer hike --- from Almendhubel to Birg, and there by cable car to Schilthorn, where hopefully we'd get good views. Taking full advantage of our holiday pass, we took the funicular again to Almendhubel, and got started up the steep path to the ski areas. A fog rolled in, however, so we only got a few views here and there. It was pretty in a desolate, snowy mountain kind of way. By the time we got to the Schilthorn Hutte, it had gotten quite chilly and I started to wonder if the fog would ever clear up. But as we had a snack there, the sun peeked out and we were once again motivated to climb the last 200m to Birg. The path to Birg was snow-ridden, and on running shoes, it wasn't the greatest but we both made it.

By the time we got to Schilthorn, we were quite hungry and immediately headed for the restaurant. I once again got sticker shock by prices in Switzerland, but by the middle of lunch the fog lifted a bit and we were stunned by the views. You do get what you pay for --- the views of the Eiger, the Monch, and the Jungfrau were nothing short of amazing. We finished lunch quickly and went outside for a few pictures before the fog rolled in again.

Using the cable car to get back to Murren, I noticed it was still only 3:00pm. So after Lisa got her requisite afternoon nap, we took the funicular once again to Almendhubel and headed down the Mountain View trail. The views lower on the mountain were actually even prettier --- wild flowers greeted us everywhere, and there was another view of the ranges every corner. It was even prettier than the Lakes district as I saw it in 2006.

By the time we got done with the hike, it was just 10 minutes before the 6:33 mountain train. The views from the train was even better than the day before, and we ate dinner outside in a restaurant that had a beautiful view of the mountains. After dinner, a lovely alpenglow set in, and I regretted for the 30th time not having a tripod, SLR, and ND grad. filters with me.

Day 4: Today, we decided to do the North Face trail, as recommended by Denise, who owned the Chalet Fontana. We took the train up the Almendhubel again, and headed along the North Face trail. At this point, I'm out of words to describe natural beauty. The surroundings were nothing short of amazing. After a while, we found the trail pointing us to Spurtz, which was a mountain fall where the hiking trail went right behind the falls. We sat there eating chocolate, contemplating the beauty and isolation of it all --- the whole time we were there, we saw no one else!

With the weather so fine, by the time we got to Gimmelwald, we knew we had to go up to the Schilthorn again. And this time we were right --- we could see all around us --- the Thunersee, every ridge (and there were plaques telling us which mountain was which), every glacier, and every detail. The visibility was outstanding. We spent some time walking around as well, and spotted what looked like a gorgeous ridge walk on the way down from Birg. We knew that we wouldn't have time to do this, but it's good to have something to spur us for another visit some time.

I went for a swim while Lisa taught some QiGong to a friend she had met the day before. Dinner was at the Hotel Alpina.

Day 4: Our train wasn't until 2:33pm, so we left at 9:30 to hike down to the valley bottom, leaving our gear in the Chalet Fontana. This 1.5 hour hike didn't take long, but wasn't as pretty as the other hikes we had been on. By the time we reached the bottom, it started raining, and we had a very wet walk to the cable car. Getting back to Murren, we decided to eat at the Almundhubel restaurant, which Lisa had found out was the best restaurant in the area. The food turned out to be fine, but the menu was limited. We then got changed, and hopped onto the mountain train home.

Things to watch out for: Chalet Fontana is very well priced, but Gimmelwald might be a nicer stay because of its quieter nature. Murren is quite expensive and Chalet Fontana doesn't quite give you the European experience because it was mentioned by Rick Steve's Switzerland Guide --- as a result, the place is full of Americans and British folks. What Rick Steves doesn't tell you is that headroom is a problem. Even though Lisa was only 5' 2.5", she kept hitting her head in what was sold to us as the biggest room in the house (it did have room for 3). As a matter of fact, there is only one room in the house that I wouldn't be constantly hitting my head on. So be warned. Now that I've been there in early July, I can say that there's probably other lodging just as cheap and in quieter areas. The cheapest way to approach this would be probably to rent an apartment for a week. That way you can cook and don't have to deal with the amazingly high Swiss restaurant prices.

Despite all these complaints, this was an amazing trip. In fact, after this trip, I wonder why I bother visiting American National parks --- sure you see more wildlife, but in exchange you have to drive a lot (or camp out). The Lauterbrunnen valley is prettier than Yosemite valley by far. I've seen more waterfalls in those 5 days than in 10 years of visiting Yosemite, and the Lauterbrunnen falls are better. So save your money, grit your teeth with the air travel and the European exchange rates, and go. Lauterbrunnen is worth every penny, and if you wait too long the American dollar will be too worthless to be of use in Switzerland anyway.

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