Although I've heard all about the rare beauty of Switzerland, I can't say that it was ever all that high on my list of places to visit. However, my brilliant scientist friend Elaine had moved there a year and a half back when her research lab relocated, and as it had been some time since I'd seen her, I was in the neighborhood and her passport had expired, I found myself en route to Basel.
I took the most expensive ten minute cab ride of my life from the small, orderly Basel airport across the ice blue river to Elaine's apartment. I have to admit I was a little jealous. It was spacious and light, with long white curtains billowing in the breeze and birds chirping just outside the windows. I felt as if I was in Pleasantville.
After a quick pit stop at Elaine's lab to play with a few test tubes, we were on our way to the Alps for a weekend of hiking. We took a bus (for which we waited approximately 45 seconds) to the train station, where we were able to purchase one ticket for a journey that spanned several modes of transportation and ended in a town with a population of approximately five. But only after a four minute lecture from the ticket vendor about the importance of signing the back of my debit card (I forgot, OK?! It's a new card!).
After a big train, a small train, a gondola and a mountain train, the connections between which were utterly stress free, Elaine and I alighted in the mountain town of Murren. We walked across town to the Hotel Alpenruh,
where we were greeted by the friendly Swiss proprietor and shown to our adorable room.
I was totally charmed that they had left us apples to snack on, and with an eye towards sleep I was thrilled with the bed. I love nothing more than a good mattress, down pillows, duvets and featherbeds and that was exactly what I had to look forward to.
But first, dinner. Ten minutes later we were back across town in the restaurant at the Hotel Eiger enjoying a rich, tangy fondue served by the most wonderful waiter. A man who clearly took his profession seriously, he took excellent care of us and made full use of all of the arcane silverware and carts at his disposal, right down to a specialized implement that he used to scrape off the cooked cheese at the bottom of our fondue pot so that we could enjoy a treat.
Back at the hotel, we were snoozing by 9:30. Elaine hadn't slept for several days and I at heart am eighty-five years old.
The next morning we awoke early to a brilliantly clear day, perfect for the hike we had planned. After a hearty Swiss breakfast (I still miss the buffet at the Hotel Alpenruh) we were off. Elaine is my most athletic and intrepid friend so of course she suggested that we take a gondola down from our mountain top to the valley and then climb back up an even higher mountain. No walking along ridges or valleys for us! Thank god her time in Basel has driven her to start smoking, otherwise I would have had no hope of keeping up.
We set off hiking from the small town of Stechelberg and walked along the valley floor for a time.
Presently, we came across the first of many groups of cows. Or would that be a herd? Good god I'm citified.
Given the obvious health of the cows it wasn't hard to see why we had such wonderful cheese options at breakfast.
Soon the trail began to rise. It quickly turned into steep switchbacks directly up an Alp. I thought perhaps this was an anomaly and said something about hoping the whole hike wasn't this bad. Elaine responded that it would probably get worse and offered me one of her crazy ski pole like walking sticks that I had mocked twelve hours earlier. It was not long before I accepted.
Despite the strenuous activity, I was enjoying myself immensely. I grew up hiking in various American mountain ranges with my nature-loving parents but haven't done much in the way of hiking since college. I had forgotten how much I enjoy the great outdoors. Plus which all of the fresh air was bringing back a flood of wonderful childhood memories.
The higher we got the more spectacular the views were and the more often I stopped to enjoy them. It had nothing to do with the fact that I was gasping for air. No, my breaks were all about the views.
Another happy side effect of our elevation change was that we began to see a beautiful array of wildflowers. The season had passed in the valley, but we were climbing so steeply that we actually had changed climate zones.
Just when I thought my legs might collapse beneath me we came to our first destination, the town of Obersteinberg. Town may be too strong of a term. We came to a guest house that represented the entirety of Obersteinberg. In need of some refreshment, we both ordered giant beers and enjoyed the frosty goodness outdoors while taking in the craggy alpine peaks.
Elaine took this time to study the maps.
We had several and still didn't quite know where we were. Thank god the signage on the hiking trails was so good otherwise who knows where we would have ended up.
Soon we were back on our feet on our way to Oberhornsee, a picturesque Alpine Lake 300 meters above Obersteinberg. I would probably have been more excited about setting off again had I ordered a diet coke rather than a beer, but no matter. We ambled through some relatively flat meadowland, admiring the glacier covered summits of the Jungfrau along the way, and I was lulled into a false sense of confidence in my own physical ability.
Then we came to a Mordor-like crag.
Apparently our destination was up it. I fear I may have turned into a slightly whiny child at that point, but we eventually made it to the serene little lake into which I immediately dunked my feet. And then removed them almost as quickly in order to avoid frostbite. Ah, I knew that glacier was melting into something!
During our moment of repose Elaine and I ate some cookies and consulted the guidebook. Apparently we had climbed from an elevation of 910 meters to an elevation of 2,065 meters. So we had climbed 1,155 meters...3,788 feet! Three times the height of the Empire State Building! I was totally impressed with myself and paused for some self-congratulation. Elaine took the opportunity to go climb another mini-mountain adjacent to the lake while I lounged in the grass. Ah, bliss.
As we set off home the rains came. Apparently the weather patterns in the Alps resemble those in tropical countries during the rainy season. Massive afternoon downpours each day. No matter, we stopped back in Obersteinberg for some delicious meat soup and waited it out. And then descended back down to the valley through a lush crevasse next to a perfectly grey river. It was the most fascinating color...it seemed pure and clean rather than dirty, almost the shade of a dove. Perhaps this is what melted glaciers look like? Or is some rare Swiss mineral to blame? Anybody know?
Along the way we came across plenty of wandering cows, adorable houses and some of the most orderly wood piles I've ever seen.
We fell into bed that night pleasantly tired and looking forward to another beautiful day hiking in the Alps.
But the next day we bounded out to our balcony only to be met with threatening clouds.
And then the rain arrived. Early. Our plans to hike up a glacier were dashed, so we lazed around the breakfast room for a while and then decided to go to the valley to check out the Trummelbachfall, a waterfall inside of a mountain.
We headed to the Murren train station and came across what would become the most extreme comedy of errors I had seen in quite some time. A British couple was talking frantically at the ticket window, it seems they had some sort of question regarding transportation. The man finally exclaimed "I don't have enough German to ask!" Nevermind that the ticket seller spoke better english than I do.
Down on the train a large foreign family was causing a ruckus. Five unruly children frustrated their father so much that he left the car, leaving the mother to unsuccessfully mediate the squabbles between the children. Then the British couple came on the train, still quite frantic. The man whipped out some Superglue to mend a bag and the woman nearly had a nervous breakdown regarding the "toxic fumes" until she opened the train window in the most spastic manner possible. They relaxed for a moment until they realized that they had lost something quite vital. Both were immediately on the floor, searching, outside of the train, searching, running about, searching. The man screeched "should I meet you in the valley?!!" at his compatriot. Thank god they got off the train together, I'm not sure they could have found one another again. It was the most chaos I had encountered on my entire trip. It was all very un-Swiss.
Finally, the train left the station. We alighted in Lauterbrunnen, and after admiring some very precise shingle work
and enviable vegetable gardens
we made it to the waterfall in the mountain. And it was impressive. More than worth the trouble of fighting through throngs of tourists wearing inappropriate footwear.
One of six different chutes running down the mountain caves...
...I was unable to capture the phenomenal power of the water on film, you'll just have to take my word for it: the falls were awe inspiring. And I should have brought a poncho.
When we came out of the mountain we discovered that it was still raining in the valley.
In search of sun we went father down to the town of Interlaken, where the sun did indeed show itself. We hopped on a boat headed to Thun, with stops in many cute lakeside hamlets along the way. It provided the perfect opportunity to lounge, and Elaine took advantage of the time to read about horrid ice climbing experiences on the Eiger.
I took the time to stare aimlessly at scenery. It was possibly the most relaxing experience of my entire trip.
Once in Thun we took a gander at the local castle
and based on a brief stroll around decided that we really liked the city. Bustling, it melds ancient and modern effortlessly. In fact, Elaine liked it so much that she plans to go back when it comes time to write her thesis.
After a dinner of wild Alpine deer accompanied by an excellent bottle of Swiss red (why have I never heard of Swiss wines before? They're wonderful!) we again fell into bed, spent, sinking back thankfully into our down wonderland.
The next day we skipped our hotel breakfast buffet in favor of the breakfast buffet at the revolving restaurant at the top of the famous peak the Schilthorn. I am not sure if it is famous for its height, views or the fact that a James Bond movie from the 70s was filmed there. We took two different gondolas 1100 meters into the clouds, and arrived here:
A restaurant that looks very much like it belongs in the 70s in a James Bond movie. Oddly, it was just the floor that revolved, not the outer walls. This meant that I nearly lost several items that I set down on the windowsill as they were halfway around the restaurant before I knew it. Too much bacon and too many waffles combined with too many revolutions per hour meant that our time up there was a little short. Which was too bad because the views were utterly phenomenal, even on a cloudy day.
The Jungfrau was shrouded in clouds, but the Eiger was clear as a bell.
That small spot on the lower left is the midpoint of the ride where you transfer gondolas on the way up to the summit.
As soon as the dizziness subsided we departed Murren, I to Geneva and Elaine to Basel. Again, the transport system was stunningly good and the trip was worry free. And I was able to buy one ticket from a tiny town in central Switzerland to an airport on the French border. America take note. Traveling doesn't have to be so hard!
I once heard a joke that goes "Heaven is where the police are British, the chefs are Italian, the mechanics are German, the lovers are French and it's all organized by the Swiss. Hell is where the police are German, the chefs are British, the mechanics are French, the lovers are Swiss and it's all organized by the Italians."
Having spent time in beautiful and highly functional Switzerland, I can finally appreciate the full humor of this joke (or at least half of it...I cannot comment on the role of the Swiss in hell).
I would miss the pure air, the dramatic landscapes, the cheese, the train system and the orderliness of Swizerland. I knew my time was short when the lovely Lake Geneva came into view...
...soon I was en route to my final destination.