On a High

Trip Start Aug 14, 2007
Trip End May 23, 2008

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Flag of Switzerland  ,
Sunday, August 26, 2007

· Lauterbrunnen, Jungfrau, Switzerland
· GMT +1:00 hour

Anyone who has not seen the scenery which surrounds Interlaken does not know Switzerland
- Felix Mendelssohn

Efficiency Personified
So we headed, bags on back, to Bern train station where we set about getting tickets to the Jungfrau region of the Bernese Oberland, an area of spectacular natural alpine beauty in the south of the country. This, to me, was what Switzerland was going to be all about; rugged snow-capped peaks towering over deep, green valleys (white, in winter) sprinkled with droopy-roofed chalets. We both were hoping that the reality lived up to all those stereotypical perceptions. But first we had to get there. Not a problem as it turned out. Within 5 minutes of arrival in the train station ticket office, the extra-helpful ticket office clerk had organised not just out our tickets to the mountains but onward tickets to Milan, Italy, some 3 days later. If we didn't know it already we knew it then - Switzerland is a well oiled machine and an immensely easy, albeit expensive, place to travel.

Jungfrau hello
So we soon found ourselves on a typically clean Swiss train on route to Interlaken, the gateway to the Jungfrau region of the Swiss Alps. This is how our guidebook describes the region -

'lying south of the major gateway resort of Interlaken, Jungfrau is the rather uninspiring title foisted on what is perhaps the most dramatic, certainly the most memorable, mountain scenery in the whole of Switzerland. The Matterhorn may be more recognizable, Davos and St. Moritz may be flashier, but the quantity and sheer scale of the awesome giants on offer here at close quarters takes your breath away. Sight lines throughout the area are dominated by the mighty triple crest of the Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau (Ogre, Monk and Virgin) - three giant peaks rising side by side and topping out at over 4000m.'

We had decided well before coming to Switzerland to base ourselves in the small village of Lauterbrunnen, a 20 minute train journey from Interlaken. Why? Well, scenery, of course. And setting - the village sits at the entry to the Lauterbrunnen Valley, an immense U-shaped cleft (the World's deepest, no less) with high, steep cliffs either side rising 1000m from the valley floor. From these cliffs some 72 lacy, misty waterfalls fall into the valley, making the whole place look utterly spectacular: even hardened Alpinists shrug their shoulders and call it the most beautiful valley in Europe, bar none.

First Impressions
We got more than an eyeful from the train of snowy peaks, spectacular lakes and rolling valleys as we approached Lauterbrunnen, but the views up the Lauterbrunnen Valley, as we walked the short distance from the village train station to our accommodation, were/are nothing short of spectacular. The village marks the start of the valley, looking up which, in the distance, is the perfectly framed view of the snowy peak of Breithorn (3782m). It's hard to explain the sight, so rather than us try we'll kindly ask you to click on the thumbnail to the right instead. Thanks.

Our Time Here... and a few numbers
Tonight will be our 2nd, and final, night here in Lauterbrunnen (762m). We've spent the last day and a half in go-slow mode, taking in the sights of what truly is a spectacular part of the world. The highlight of our stay was the hike we completed today. We took a cable car from the valley floor (762m) to a small outpost called Grütschalp on the valleys eastern cleft (1489m). From there we took a scenic train ride, touted as one of the best in Switzerland, along the top of the cleft to a small village called Mürren (1654m), where the views, 800m down into the valley floor and of the distant peaks of Eiger (3970m), Mönch (4107m) and Jungfrau (4158m), were amazing. From Mürren we walked, yodelling as we went, for a few hours to another village called Gimmelwald (1400m) from where we descended onto the valley floor at Stechelberg (910m), which marks the other end of the Lauterbrunnen Valley from Lauterbrunnen village. We then walked along the valley floor back to the village, straining our necks as we went. Before reaching the village we paid a visit to the Trümmelbach Falls, the only accessible waterfalls in the world to be completely within a mountain. Or so they say. Again folks, have a look at all 12 pictures for the complete story.

Still Beats Working... even if you're sick
So, that's about it from the Swiss Alps and Switzerland in general. 2 countries down already. We'll spend most of tomorrow on trains (4 in total) getting to our next destination, Venice, Italy. Meg is still feeling a bit under the weather and is having a hard time shaking the 24-hour head cold I had a few days ago in Dijon. I guess for her it's a 72-hour bug... 72-hours and counting. We expect the temperatures to heat up as we continue to head south and knowing Meg that'll do the trick and she'll be right as rain (no pun intended) in a day or so.

Day 11 & 12 Observations (August 24th & 25th 2007)

· Hard to compare
The scenery of the Swiss countryside, including the mountains, didn't disappoint. Of course it didn't. It's actually hard to put into words (well, for me anyway) exactly how picturesque the whole place is (hopefully the pictures posted here will go someway to conveying the scene). But here's the thing - it's almost too idyllic looking. I mean pass through any valley, one with its chalets separated by lush green fields full of bell-wearing cows, and you could be forgiven for thinking you were looking at a very nice oil painting. Throw a turquoise-blue lake and a few snow-capped peaks in for good measure and you could be forgiven for thinking you were looking at a very, very, very nice oil painting. It's hard also to compare the scenery to anywhere else on the planet (well, anywhere else on the planet I've been). But I will say this - I found the overall scenery of what I saw in New Zealand more awe-inspiring, and therefore for me more beautiful. Its landscape is more... umm, more diverse... more untouched... more rugged (I guess I like the rugged look, not the pristine look). It hasn't been carefully sculpted by and artist, someone hasn't spent the time to lay grass seed everywhere and people don't live in chalets that look like they have been freshly painted. The New Zealand countryside has just sculpted itself, and it has done a great job doing it.

· Bring Fido
Dogs are allowed everywhere. Yep, everywhere... from what we can see. Trains, cable cars, buses, cafes and even restaurants.

· Little Korean & Little India
We couldn't believe the amount of Koreans, Indians and, to a lesser degree, Spaniards there were in Lauterbrunnen. Indians you can kind of explain; their 'Bollywood' movie industry shoots 90% of its 'overseas' movies in the Swiss countryside and thus most Indians view it as a sort of utopia that is to be visited, if at all possible (not possible for the vast majority of them). But the abundance of Koreans we couldn't explain, even after we queried a few of them as to why they are here on mass. We noticed the dual English/Korean signs when we first arrived at the hostel but we never expected to be practically the only non-Korean guests in the whole hostel. Not that it was a problem for us. Of course it wasn't. We're sure you can all appreciate the irony of it all.

· "Everest? 7000km that way"
Meet a fellow hiker in the Swiss hills and he or she will invariably be decked out in the latest and greatest hiking gear. All the gear, including boots, breathable clothing, hats, raincoat etc, etc. They'll also have a huge backpack stuffed with God only knows what and with hiking paraphernalia dangling from all orifices or loops. Oh, and not to forget the hiking poles, essential for them 10 degree paved inclines. This isn't the first time I have noticed this as I remember commenting on it in Korea. As for Meg and I? Well, we had our sandals, shorts, tops, sunglasses and a day-bag between us for our camera, camcorder and our must-not-leave-that-out-of-sight items such as passports, credit cards and cash. I guess we're lucky a sudden swell didn't roll in from the north and trap us. Yep, dodged a bullet there.

· Shocking
The fields that house those cute mountain coats or cows (yes, all with bells on.. you know the ones Heidi used to look after?) are all surrounded with electric fences. Just ask Meg, who got a nasty shock from one as she was trying to feed grass to one of a few very cute, but apprehensive, looking cows in a field we passed. She spent minutes enticing a bell-jingling cutie towards her, only to see it dash across to the other side of the field withing seconds of her letting out a yelp from the shock she received. Don't worry guys, Meg is fine. The shock of the shock was worse than the shock itself, if you know what I mean?

· Cable Car Virgin
The cable car trip we took from Lauterbrunnen to Grütschalp was Meg's first ever! We couldn't think of a better place to break that duck.

· Sheds
Any Swiss meadow will have numerous sheds dotted around it, all with no obvious, at least to us, use. Maybe they are part of the great Swiss conspiracy, the aim of which is to pull off that idyllic, it-must-be-a-painting look? Could be, but I doubt it. I'll find out what they are for on our next visit.

· Expected
Public transport over here is frighteningly efficient. Not that this came as a surprise, but the efficiency of the Swiss transport system is second to none (well, apart from the system in Japan maybe). This is what our guidebook says about the system...

The massively comprehensive Swiss public transport system remains one of the wonders of the modern world. The Swiss are the most frequent train users in Europe - not surprising, given the quality of the network. Travelling through Switzerland by train is invariably comfortable, hassle-free and extremely scenic, with many mountain routes an attraction in their own right

Here, here.

· Franc-a-lot
It's expensive to eat out. Yep, if you have any sort of budget, eating out in Switzerland is invariably going to cut into it. So don't do it. We had access to a fully equipped kitchen, one we shared with half of Seoul, and easily cooked gorgeous meals (chicken breast one night, spaghetti the other) that we ate on our room balcony while gazing at the snowy peaks surrounding us. The Co-op store where we bought the food also sold wine. At €2 a litre (you could buy cheaper, honest) it should be an essential accompaniment to any meal.

· Exp comp
I'm assuming any amateur photographer like me will find it hard to get nice, accurate mountain shots in the saturated, midday light one finds high up in the Swiss mountains? You need to constantly battle with the exposure compensation and checking the results when the light is blinding your LCD display is almost impossible... at that stage you're pretty much into 'point, shoot & hope for the best' photography. Either that or spend half the annual GDP of Gabon on a decent camera.

· Taken for granted?
We assume that if you lived up here in the Swiss mountains that you'd eventually reach a point when you'd just take the scenery on your doorstep for granted. What a shame that would be.

· The Valley Hostel
Our hostel, set in a chalet (a REAL Swiss chalet) was spotless, was staffed by friendly staff and offered super facilities, including a fully equipped kitchen and wireless internet access. Having access to the kitchen meant we ate well at a fraction of the cost of eating out and the internet meant we got to touch base with those at home (at least those who actually answered their phone) and got to finally access all our e-mails on our laptop.

· VoIP rocks
You realise how amazing VoIP is when you find yourself sitting on the balcony of a chalet high in the Swiss Alps speaking to someone 6 time zones away. Trust me on this one.

· The golden rule of Swiss travel
Don't shake the yogurts. Meg picked up a yogurt in a store in Lauterbrunnen, tried to read the label (it was in German, I think) and placed it back on the shelf. Moments later the observant shopkeeper came over to settle the yogurt carton, because seemingly Meg shouldn't have picked it up at all. Why? She muttered something about her not wanting the contents of the carton to rest on the underside of the foil lid. Okay.

· Bum First
Most of the train rolling stock in Europe travels back and forth on the same track between destinations, meaning half the carriage is facing one way and half is facing the other way. Given a choice I like to sit in the direction of travel. Well, on every journey that we've had assigned seating we've been sitting against the direction of travel. It's not a biggie... just something I picked up on. Sorry to bore you all with it.

· Commandment #3 - Keep Holy the Sabbath
Switzerland is a strictly 9-5, Monday to Saturday, society.... even in cities and even in tourist destinations. Sort of reminds me of the old days at home when Sunday was indeed observed as the Sabbath. The whole country is like one large ghost town on a Sunday.. and after 5pm most other days. Sort of annoying when, at 5:02pm, you realise you forget to get that €2 bottle of wine to accompany dinner.
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