25 February 2009

A Swiss Tour

As my train continued its journey it glided through the rolling terrain of northern Switzerland. Surprising to me, this part of the country was not the rocky, sky-piercing mountains of Swiss fame. These foothills of the Alps resembled the Applachians more than the Rockies. As the train pulled into Bern it crossed an arch bridge that towered high over a narrow river valley. Along both sides of the valley the Swiss capital city spread. Several bridges at differing heights over the river connected the steep city. That view alone was enough to convince me to stay and explore the city, but the train pushed on to the Alps. I also raced to snap a picture of the view from my window, but by the time my camera was in hand it was too late.

In the midafternoon I reached the town of Interlaken, in south central Switzwerland. This community of around 5,ooo is the base camp for many an adventure-minded traveler, as it is the largest town in the ever so attractive Berner Oberland and Jungfrau regions. This is the part of Switzerland that exists in your imagination. This is the Switzerland of Heidi and cow bells, the Switzerland of snow-capped peaks and Alpine meadows. This was my destination.

From Interlaken I transfered to a cog railway to carry me farther. From here on the grade of the tracks becomes too steep for a normal train to safely pull itself up the incline. These special trains employ a third wheel, a cog wheel, that travels along a third grooved rail, essentially a gear along a track. This allows the train to slowly but surely travel up and down the slopes. This train took me to the smaller town of Lauterbrunnen, my place of rest for the next two days or so.

Lauterbrunnen sits deep in the Lauterbrunnen Valley, a narrow gorge between mountains composed of colossal sheer rock faces that reach several hundred feet from the valley floor. When the weather is warmer, supposedly over a hundred waterfalls cascade into the valley, but for the extent of my stay, and surely many more weeks to come, the waterfalls remained in a frozen state clinging to the valley's walls.

Though the weather at my arrival was less than ideal, clouds and fog concealed the natural behemoths of rock that I knew loomed around and above me, I stored my backpack and rode a bus to the end of the valley. From here I boarded a cable car that lifted off of the valley floor and brought me to the charming village of Gimmelwald.

Since first hearing of this tiny village I had wanted to visit it. Gimmelwald is home to around 100 people, and in the popular Jungfrau region of ski resorts and vacation towns is largely ignored by the average visitor; case in point, all but one of the other passegners on the cable car continued on to the higher stops and ski slopes. The village is perched on the edge of the valley, but the spectacular views were impossible for me to see on the first day of my visit. Though, as you can see in the photo below, what I could see was still not entirely dissapointing.

Gimmelwald likely would have reached the same fate as the nearby towns of Mürren, Grindelwald, or Wegen by becoming over-developed ski and tourist destinations, with their own one-time charm and quaintness lost, were it not for the village school master. He led the village to unite behind a special request to the regional authorities. This request was granted, and the entire village of Gimmelwald received the label of avalanche zone, thereby legally preventing the construction of hotels and tourist infrastructure.

Today the community consists largely of wooden homes and sevearal barns. A couple small bed and breakfasts and one hostel exist. There is one bar and a couple stores that mostly only sell items that cater to the relatively few visitors: fresh Alpine milk, cheese, and yougurt, pasteries, homemade beef jerky (some of the finest I've ever had), and so on. Below is a view of the village's fire department, complete with hoses.

I walked along the one path that could be considered a street, though its blanket of snow made it impossible for me to know if it was paved or not. In the next image you can see one of the two cars I saw in the village. What roads the driver takes to get down from Gimmelwald and into the valley, and how long that drive takes is beyond me. Along the way I passed several of the village cows and sheep. More often than not, the cows remained in there barns, but I could hear the clinging of their bells from far away.

I took a path that had signs marking the way to the larger village of Mürren. The heavy layer of clouds remained, but the foreground views of frosted forests were enjoyable in their own right. Mostly the only other people I passed during this walk and also actually in Gimmelwald, were the occasional skiers or sledders drifting down the gently sloping trail.

After reaching Mürren I turned around and walked back to Gimmelwald. With the sun setting, I boarded the cable car and started the return trip back to Lauterbrunnen. For the next day I hoped for clear skies, as they were critical for my plans.

While looking out the window the next morning, a crisp blue sky hung above. For the first time, I could actually see and appreciate the natural beauty that surrouned me. I soon boarded another cog train that would take me higher into the mountains, as high as any train in Europe could take me actually.

My destination was the Jungfraujoch, a dip between the summits of the Jungfrau and Mönch mountains. The Jungfrau is one of Switzerland's most visited and popular mountains. A couple thousand feet below its summit, at around 11,300 above sea level, rests a research station, obersvatory, and viewing area for the public. The train staion is actually below all of this, buried in the mountain rock, but is still the highest train station in all of Europe.

The trip from Lauterbrunnen lasted about two hours, including brief stops at other ski towns along the way. At these stops several skiers would board only to get off one or two stops later in order to ride the snowy slopes back down. After the Kleine Schneidegg stop though, and after switching to another train, only passengers to the end of the line remained. Not long after, the train entered a tunnel into the mountain, not to emerge again until its return trip. At two points during the subterranean portion of the trip the train stopped so that passengers could stretch their legs and enjoy the views from windows blasted into the side of the mountain. One of these windows is seen first below. In the second view is the train parked at the Jungfraujoch station.

Reaching the final station, I quickly made my way through the tunnels of the visitor complex and to the viewing platform below the Sphinx Observatory. I had taken the second train of the morning, and through most of the tunnels I walked alone. After an elevator ride and a few extra stairs, I arrived at the door to the viewing platform. A sign near the door displayed the current temperature and wind speed outside: -20 degrees celsius and 40 kilometers per hour. I bundled up and stepped into the freezing breeze.

In front of me was the summit of the Jungfrau, as seen in the first photo below. To my right, and in the next image, was the Aletsch Glacier, Europe's largest. In the summer one can even leave the visitor's complex to walk on part of the glacier, but wintry conditions made that too dangerous during my visit. Other than the sound of the wind, I could hear only silence, at least until someone else stepped out onto the platform. For a better sense of what it looked and sounded like, play the video clip below. I'll title the footage "Working at the Top of Europe," you'll see why and who joined me on the platform towards the end.

Next I returned to the warm confines of the visitor complex and walked through what's called the Ice Palace, a series of tunnels carved into the glacier's ice. Along the way permanent ice sculptures decorated the path. A view down one of the tunnels is below.

I eventually rode the train back down to Lauterbrunnen. In the following photographs one can see the several skiers on vacation loitering around the Kleine Scheidegg station, and riding the lift to the slopes. The area seemed very popular with Europeans on vacation, especially several Brits on winter holiday.

Back in Lauterbrunnen, I immediately headed again to Gimmelwald. My second visit rewarded me with even more enchanting views. With the first image below one can gain a better understanding of how the village really does rest on the edge of the valley.

With the whole afternoon to use up, I set out on several hiking trails. The snow became deeper and deeper and I quickly found myself wishing for a pair of snow shoes. Eventually the trail disappeared on a slope at the edge of some woods. A sound drew nearer. Four or five skiers and snowboarders suddenly emerged from the trees and acted quickly to avoid me. I questioned my presence there but carried on anyway. I came to an obvious trail and continued up to a switchback. Pausing to allow some more skiers to pass, I stood slightly off the trail on the outer end of the bend. One skier came down the path with great speed, couldn't turn quick enough, either becuase of his great speed or because of me standing there, and tumbled off into the snow. After that I decided that it might be best to return to my original trail and to Gimmelwald. Incidentally, the skier only laughed, brushed off the snow, and continued back down the trail.

Almost back in Gimmelwald, and on a trail safe from on-coming skiers, I stopped to savor the views of the village and the Alps. Here is a video clip from that spot. Watch for the cows to walk out from a barn in the village foreground.

The next morning I left Lauterbrunnen and the Alpine wonderland to see two of Switzerland's most visited cities. I first stopped in Lucerne, and explored the city for a couple of hours. As with many of Switzerland's largest cities, Lucerne sits on a lake and at the mouth of a river emptying into that lake. The city is most well-known for its historical center still well preserved. Here are a couple views of the city. In the first one you can see Lucerne's main landmark, the Kapellbrücke, or Chaple Bridge.

Finally, I boarded a train to Zurich, the largest city of Switzerland. Slightly less than 400,000 residents call this city home. Known for global finance and banking, the city also possesses a vibrant street life and attractive old town. The main shopping street of Zurich is seen below, and the legend is that gold lines the bank vaults below it.

Along the street I stopped at Sprüngli, reportedly the city's best for chocolates. I couldn't miss the opportuntiy to taste some real Swiss chocolate. The sweet treats did not let me down. Sprüngli's window disaplay is seen in the following picture. Remember that the confectionary is competing for attention with the other high-priced stores along the street.

In Switzerland there are four official languages, German, French, Italian, and Romansh, but most of the population speaks German as its first language. The German-speaking region of Switzerland is in the north, east, and central parts of the country. For the most part I did not have any problems communicating with the locals, but the Swiss do speak a dialect of German that, when spoken between Swiss, was difficult for me and is difficult for most Germans to clearly understand. Most of the time it was entertaing to hear, as to my ears their dialect of German sounded a little like standard German being sung.

I only spent one night in Zurich, but I wouldn't mind returning some day to better experience the medieval center that captivated my curiosity. Here are two views of the city.

On Tuesday morning I started my journey out of Switzerland. The ride to the border eastward from Zurich would only take about an hour. I had only spent a handful of days in the country, but my stay was enjoyable. I got off the train in the town of Sargans and boarded a bus that would take me to the next country on my itinerary, a country that most will likely never visit, and a country that's existence is perhaps forgotten to some, if not many.


Anonymous said...

Nick, these are great shots! What was the temperature when you were in Zurich? Some of the people on the street didn't look to bundled up - I shivered just looking at the shots. mc

Nick O. said...

mc: Thanks! It wasn't too cold; I'd guess slightly above the freezing point. I think winter is finally starting to wind up over here.

Anonymous said...