Chapter Three – Montreux & Gruyéres, SwitzerlandDecember 23, 2011
Chapter Five – Lugano, ItalyDecember 25, 2011
Day Seven – Eiger Sanctioned, Don’t Jump, Too Much Salt, That Cow’s Neck Must Hurt And Eating A Vegetable I Haven’t Tried in 40 Years
I will call this part of the journey “How to Go Bankrupt and Overcome Your Fear Of Heights In Just Three Days.” We had a short drive from Montreux to Grindelwald (well, a couple of hours is short for most Californians). It was a foggy and damp morning as we arrived at the Hotel Gletschergarten (which from now on will be mentioned as Hotel G). It is an incredibly beautiful drive into Grindelwald. The raging streams, the rolling hills and the majestic mountains around every bend in the road afford visitors an abundance of spectacular scenery.
One of the owners greeted us and led us to our room that had a huge wrap-around balcony and fantastic mountain views (of course it was so cloudy that our view of The Eiger – sans Clint Eastwood – was obscured). We didn’t know just how spectacular that view was going to be until the following morning.
After lunch (food, glorious food), since it was cloudy and stormy and outdoor views were scarce …
… we determined Trummelbachfalle (Trummelbach Falls) should be our first destination. The waterfall is found on the road between Lauterbrunnen and Stechelberg “carries the glacier melt from the west wall of the Eiger and the north walls of the Monch and Jungfrau.” It seemed logical to me, although I thought Monch was one of the guys on CHIPS.
The first part of the waterfall journey consists of a funicular ride passing through rocks that lead up to the falls. You immediately ascend about 12 million stairs that offer incredible views of the falls as you climb upwards. The calories I had eaten at lunch were quickly history. It is a perfect spot to go on a day that is cloudy or rainy, because inside it is damp and just a little bit eerie.
The eeriest thing, I found inside, was not the falls but what we encountered on the trail to the highest vantage point. Standing at the uppermost part of the walkway was a guy who was staring at the falls cascading down on the other side of this not-so-tall wall. I mean this guy never blinked. I haven’t seen a guy stare this much since I last went to a topless bar. Tracy headed back down, but I stayed for a minute because I truthfully believed this guy was seriously thinking about jumping. Then I thought, “Great. He’ll try to jump. I’ll try to save him, and he’ll take me with him (now you know why I’m in therapy twice a month).” I finally headed down, too, and we did see him later, so he didn’t kill himself (at least not at the waterfall). When I mentioned my concerns to Tracy, she said, “Wow, I thought the same thing.”
OK. Now I have a tiny confession to make. Even though I like climbing to the top of tall buildings and enjoy views from precarious perches, I do have a slight (no, make that moderate) fear of heights, so our next destination made me a little nervous. It was the aerial cableway to Murren, a town located high above the Lauterbrunnen Valley. I believe it was at the moment I first saw the price of the tramway that I decided not to think about money for the next few days. I knew we had a few more of these kinds of trips, and my wallet was going to take a direct hit.
As we entered the tram, so did about 25 school kids. I obviously had the look of terror on my face because Tracy told me not to be a wimp. Some men added a large quantity of salt bags (heavy salt bags) inside the gondola, and I started looking around for the maximum weight capacity signs. I also gazed up to see how that cable was looking. I believe at this time Tracy pretended to be married to one of the school kids. The deathtrap (I mean aerial cableway) started its ascent and the feeling was unbelievable. At one point before we reached the first station at Gimmelwald, the tram seemed to be going straight up, defying all laws of gravity. I Loved It!!!
Exiting the tram at Murren, we walked around town. The fog added an extra element of enhancement. Murren (automobile free, the tram that we took or the train from Interlaken is the only way to get here) looked like a good base town to explore the Berner Oberland region, but being late in the autumn season, the town was quiet except for the ringing rhythm of cows with bells.
All cows in Switzerland have bells tied and wrapped around their necks (some bells larger than others). We felt sorry for the cows that were wearing bells that looked to be just a bit smaller than the Liberty Bell, and those poor cows could barely keep their heads up. I hope they have a good cowropractor to help them.
Arriving back in Grindelwald (which, by the way for those of you with children, is very kid friendly), we decided to have a glass of wine at an outdoor cafe. The weather was getting better, and we were told the next couple of days should be exquisite. That was good news, because at these prices, the least we could have is some good weather. We dined at Hotel G that night. Finn (the husband-owner) served the wine, and we had a delicious dinner of leek soup, salad bar, filet de boeuf with Brussel Sprouts (I can’t believe I tried them, but they were really good), a tart of pommes and, at Finn’s recommendation, a good bottle of red wine. It was early to bed because if tomorrow was going to be as nice as everyone said, we wanted (and needed) to get an early start.
Day Eight – On Top Of Old Europe, Falling On My Ass, Outdoor Tanning Booth, The Longest Gondola Ride Ever, Take A Hike And Cheese Please
Unlike the meteorologists at home, the Swiss weather prognosticators were correct. There was not a cloud in the sky the following day, and our view from Hotel G. was remarkable. After an early breakfast, we drove to Grindelwald Grund (the train station) for a ride to The Top of Europe and Jungfraujoch via the Jungfraubahn. I told Tracy maybe we could see a beautiful 20-year-old woman on the Young Frau Line, and, of course, she rolled her eyes and dreamed of what life would be like in some parallel universe. The train headed toward the Kleine Scheidegg (a name I never pronounced the same way twice in three days) station. At Kleine Scheidegg, we switched to the rack railway that takes you to the highest rack railway station in Europe.
There are a few stops along the way, and people scramble out, run through the cutout mountain tunnel for a quick view of glaciers through a dirty window. A short video explains what you’re seeing and how they accomplished the monumental feat of building this thing. The ride from Grindelwald Grund to Jungfraujoch takes approximately one hour and fifty minutes and costs approximately a million dollars (well, I know it was more like $250 for the two of us…so much for Christmas presents in 2003). If you go up early and come back before noon, you can get a special deal so you don’t have to sell your first born. Departing the train at the end of the line, we made a beeline for the Sphinx tunnel and walked like an Egyptian to the fastest lift in Switzerland (a record previously held by Arnold Schwarzenegger). Damn, is that a polar bear behind Tracy.
It ascended us to the Sphinx-Panoramaterrasse, a long name for a place where you can go outside, freeze your ass off and gaze at incredible glacier and mountain views! Departing the train at the end of the line, we made a beeline for the Sphinx tunnel and walked like an Egyptian to the fastest lift in Switzerland (a record previously held by Arnold Schwarzenegger). It ascended us to the Sphinx-Panoramaterrasse, a long name for a place where you can go outside, freeze your ass off and gaze at incredible glacier and mountain views!
The skies were bluer than Sinatra’s eyes ( (I just wanted to get Frank Sinatra and Courtney Love in the same story).
The view of Aletsch Glacier, which is actually a 14-mile river of ice that melts into Lac Leman and eventually flows into the Mediterranean (or so they tell me) was awesome. Remarkably, we were not hungry and, figuring that the food at the Top of Europe was probably not cheap, we decided to head out onto the glacier for a while. It’s there where I showed my amazing dexterity to visitors from all corners of the globe (I never understood the term “corners of the globe” when the earth is round, but that’s just me).
Walking through another tunnel, we set foot on the icy, frozen tundra (insert Lambeau Field joke here). I immediately slipped and fell on my butt. Tracy immediately disavowed any knowledge of her relationship with me and looked around for some of those school kids who had been on the tram with us the previous day.
We hiked out a pretty good distance, and the panoramas presented at every turn were incredible. Even though it was in the low 30s, it did not seem very cold because the sun was so bright. It was better than a tanning booth.
Tracy and I soaked up the sun for about 20 minutes like any good Southern Californian with dreams of eventual skin cancer and headed back for the Eispalast (Ice Palace). Had we stayed out there long enough, we would have had a tan that would have put George Hamilton to shame.
I was hoping to see Michelle Kwan, but instead there were figures of animals carved out of ice in little scenes. Since we have real squirrels in our own front yard at home, we decided to go outside again for one last tanning experience at the top of the world.
And, you can’t leave before doing a fart (or n this case…fahrt….joke.
We took the one hour and 50 minute trip back to Grindelwald Grund. At the Kleine Scheidegg train station, we met some great Britains from outside Manchester, so the trip went by in a flash. For most folks, that would be enough for one day. Not for Tracy and Tom, however.
We could only savor the Top of Europe for a short time, because as soon as we got off at Grindelwald Grund, we walked over to the Mannlichen gondola station, picked up some provisions, and it was off to Mannlichen via the longest gondola ride in Switzerland (or maybe in Europe). We were going to Mannlichen to start our hike back to Kleine Scheidegge. It was a beautiful day for a gondola ride, something I never thought I would say just 24 hours before. Fear of heights? What fear of heights?
Note: We could have taken this ride earlier, hiked to Kleine Scheidegge and then ventured to the Top of Europe later in the day, but we felt the Top of Europe would be vastly more crowded later in the afternoon. In addition, we took into account the proximity of the sun for ultimate hiking and photography experiences.
As it turned out, we were right. The later trains were packed (mostly with Japanese tourists), and the sun was in perfect position for afternoon photos when we arrived at the Mannlichen gondola station. But there are some things more important than pictures. Food, of course.
We had lunch at the outdoor cafe in Mannlichen and then took the relatively easy hike to Kleine Scheidegge with truly unbelievable views of the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau.
The hike is about an hour, and does not rise or fall much in elevation making it a perfect hike for virtually anyone in reasonable shape. We did see one little Japanese lady who was wearing very nice (and slippery looking shoes). I believe the Swiss Search and Rescue was alerted shortly afterward.
The panoramas from so many vantage points are unforgettable.
As we ended the hike and got ready to board the train, Tracy whispered in my ear, “I’m in the mood for….” ”Love?” I inquired, cutting off her last word. “No,” she replied. “Raclette.” Well, I’ve lost out to worse things in my life. I used to be the big cheese in her life, now she just wanted the big cheese at dinner. Our hotel recommended the Eiger (the restaurant/hotel, not the mountain where Clint Eastwood was nearly sanctioned) for raclette and fondue, and this time around, life in Fondueland and Racletteworld was fantastic (and cheap). We got back to the hotel after a pretty damn full day of beautiful scenery, but we had one day in the Berner Oberland left, and I still had a few Swiss francs burning a hole in my pocket.
Day Nine – Cha-Ching, Who’s On First, Lunch Stealing Cows, Tom’s Tumbles Continue, High Flying Hiking Companions, Wine Time And Mystery Fish
I woke up rested after making love all night with Shania Twain (I swear the Swiss put some crazy ingredients in those fondues). After realizing it was only a dream, I took a long, cold shower before awaking my bride. Tracy was hoping I had forgotten that this was to be a day of more hiking, but to her dismay I told her we were going on the gondola to First for another hike.
It was another spectacular day in mountain paradise. I only wore a t-shirt (well, I had pants and other stuff on, too), and we took a gondola-dizzying ride up to First. As we got out of the gondola station, I yelled, “Who’s on First?!” I received no reaction from the three hikers and two cows nearby, so I assumed Abbott and Costello were not big in Switzerland.
When Tracy told me, “First is actually pronounced more like Fist,” which I assumed she would give me if I didn’t shut up. My plan was to hike to Faulhorn, but we had been doing a lot of walking, and since I plan to return to this region, I decided to give Tracy a break from my drill sergeant regimen. We hiked to the Bachalpsee (about 50 minutes), and stopped occasionally to chat with some some friends along the way.
When Tracy sat down to eat a ham sandwich, another friend appeared. Unbeknownst to Tracy, as she was about ready to take her first bite, a cow (with a very quiet bell) sneaked up behind her.
Of course, I could have told her this fact, but I felt a photo opportunity superseded my husbandly duties, which is fortunate, because now I have a marvelous collage of photos that I shot of my bemused wife trying to save her ham sandwich from being confiscated by a carnivorous cow.
She didn’t mind my attempt at subterfuge because she loved the cows, however when the bratty bovine began spewing an unknown liquid substance from its nostrils, the love diminished significantly.
I then gave Tracy a thrill (no, not that kind of a thrill) when I told her I was going to forego the hike up to Faulhorn. Instead, we would hike down to the Bort gondola station and go back into Grindelwald, have lunch and relax for the afternoon. I think she would have been more excited if she still weren’t removing cow spew from her jeans.
The hike down to Bort offered spectacular views of all the mountains and the valley below. We thought the views were actually a little better than even the Mannlichen to Kleine Scheidegge walk because of the varied panorama which included both mountain and valley views. But the thrills weren’t over for Tracy.
Once again, I was about to become Hiking Tom: Mountain Klutz.
As I forged our path (well fine, I was walking in the front), I stepped on a wide rock that served (to most people) as a stepping-stone. Hitting the rock at an awkward angle, it quickly became a falling down stone. As I once again took a tumble, Tracy had the pleasure of taking a picture of the fallen Tom on the trail.
It was a delightful hike (except for that damned falling part). There were literally dozens of hang gliders both below and above us, which made for a spectacular sight as the Alps glistened in the background as the colorful hang gliders soared all around us in the bright, blue sky.
Back in sunny Grindelwald, we enjoyed our day of sunshine with lunch, a little wine, a copy of the latest newspaper and…
… a little more wine.
We followed that up by doing some Grindelwald window shopping.
Since we were now officially below poverty level, we didn’t buy anything.
We drove around the area and were in awe of all the breathtaking scenery and felt so lucky that we had two of the most beautiful days you could ask for to experience this awe-inspiring place. What a remarkable region! We even got a nice view of the church located near the Hotel G.
That night, the menu at the hotel looked good, so we stayed in. A mystery fish appetizer (Hotel G sticks strictly to the don’t ask, don’t tell policy) was appealing, a very good salad bar, a goulash Stroganoff that was killer (they offered seconds and I took it) and a dessert of ice cream and Campari (foreshadowing for future trip reports) made for a perfect end to another fantastic day in Grindelwald.
When we got back to the room, we turned on CNN International and heard the sad news that singer Robert Palmer had died.
So in his honor, I will end this part of our trip with, “The Berner Oberland is Simply Irresistible.”
Next: Chapter Five – Lugano, Italy