Sunday, February 2, 2014

Weekend in the Alps: Grindelwald, Interlaken, Engelberg, and Luzern

This past weekend, four of my fellow classmates and I took our first over-night trip together in Switzerland.  We had a busy weekend planned: Grindelwald, Interlaken, Engelberg, Luzern, then back to Geneva by Sunday night to be ready for work on Monday morning.  We decided to pack very light and to save our money for a night at a hostel, so we left at 6:00am from Geneva for our first stop:

We arrived here around 10:00am on Saturday, February, 1, 2014.  Walking from the train station, everything is surrounded by mountains.  And these aren't the beautiful-but-far-away mountains that we saw in Gruyeres.  These are the real deal - the Alps of the Jungfrau region and we were right in the middle.  The first order of business was to find something to eat for breakfast so that we could be ready for our adventure up the mountain.  We wandered around and found a little cafe connected to a bakery.  It was still too early for the lunch menu (and Europeans have this thing about small breakfasts) so we bought enough at the bakery to tide us over for a little while, then started walking back through the town to get to the Firstbahn station - the base for the cable cars.
In the informal tally that I have been conducting on Swiss culture, my preliminary results are that Swiss people on the whole are either nice or polite, but they do not like it if you break any rules once such rules have been established.  I am adding a new conclusion to my informal study: Swiss people are nice and polite, unless you break a rule....or interfere with their skiing.  In line for the cable cars to the top of the mountain, we were surrounded by a horde of rather pushy skiers all anxious to get through the lifts up to the top of the mountain.  Unfortunately, there was no separate line for tourists and their cameras to go, so we were sandwiched right in the middle of all the skiers who kept pushing and cutting through line to get to the front.
We made it through the cable cars and were able to take one for our group.  About halfway up the mountain, a 12 year old boy hopped into the empty seat in our car so he could get to the top.  He was only 12 years old, but had been downhill skiing since he was 5 years old, spoke French and German fluently, and had a pretty good command of English.  Ridiculous.  
Once we got to the top of the cable cars in Grindelwald (it's a 30 minute ride altogether), we started wandering around the area by the lodge.
Over one of the slopes was a BMW ski event that was being broadcast on the TVs inside the lodge.  The BMW event had nice Swiss music playing, and the music could be heard floating across the snow to the other slopes.
We managed to find some nice spots with a view and despite the cold, had a great time wandering around the top and taking in the mountains.  Check out these amazing views: 

After we made it back down the mountain, we hustled back to the train station to make it to Interlaken before nightfall.

We managed to make it to Interlaken that afternoon.  We took our time walking back from the train station in order to stop at the watch and souvenir stores along the way.  The hostel itself was actually extremely nice - one of the nicest hostels I've stayed at - and it's called Backpackers Villa Sonnenhof.  The employees were so nice and upgraded our split reservation to a 5-person private room with our own shower and bathroom.  The lockers inside the room were spacious and secure, each person had a comfortable bunk bed with a lamp, shelf, and outlet at each bed.  I think that hostel might have been more comfortable than my room in the foyer in Geneva.  
We quickly checked in, got our hot drink tokens, dropped off our backpacks, grabbed a map, then found the bus stop to take us to the lake to the west of Interlaken (we had passed Lake Thun on our way to Interlaken on the train).  As we were sitting at the bus stop waiting, an old woman with a bicycle starts talking to us from across the sidewalk.  We have a quick conversation with her, then as she swings one leg over her bicycle, she tells us, "Tomorrow's weather is supposed to be very terrible.  BYE!" And as mysteriously as she came, she pedaled away and disappeared down the road.
We took the bus as far as it would go to get to the other lake.  We found ourselves at the edge of the small village of Riggenberg and in the midst of a residential area of old wooden houses along the lakeshore of Lake Brienzersee.  You could smell a wood-burning fire somewhere in the distance and through the blue-grey sky, with dusk just starting to fall, you could see little puffs of smoke rising from the chimneys.  We found a gravel pathway behind the houses that turned into a little walking trail.  The trail then opened up into a clearing with a couple benches and a beautiful view of the lake, mountains, and Interlaken on the opposite shore.  The sky was becoming darker now, almost an inky blue, and across the teal-colored water, you could see the lights of Interlaken just beginning to flicker for the night.  The water was so still that we couldn't even hear the sound of waves brushing the pebbly shoreline.  If it had been less cloudy, I'm sure it would have been a beautiful place to watch the stars.
However, the trail was not lit, so we walked back before the sun set completely so that we could find our way back to Interlaken before nightfall.  We managed to find a small restaurant open for dinner where we ate before returning to the hostel for the night.

Engelberg (Mt. Titlis)
Sunday morning, we woke up bright and early to pack up our room, check out of the hostel, and eat breakfast.  It was a pleasant surprise to find that a light covering of snow had settled over Interlaken.  We had to hustle over to the train station where we hopped on a train to Engelberg.
Train in Engelberg
The train itself, like Grindelwald, was packed with people looking to ski and there we were, just wanting to see the mountain from the top.
Engelberg from the Cable Car
The first leg of the journey is a cable car up the mountain from Engelberg (1050 meters; 3,444 feet) to Stand (2428 meters; 7,965 feet).  Then, you hop onto the Rotair - the cable car that rotates the whole way up (only a five minute trip) and takes you to Klein Titlis (3,028 meters; 9,934 feet).  The summit of Mt. Titlis itself is 3,239 meters (10,626 feet).
At Klein Titlis, there is a station with a restaurant, glacier cave (20 meters/65 feet below the surface of the glacier), open chairlift (called the Ice Flyer), the highest suspension bridge in Europe - the Cliff Walk. The Cliff Walk is a metal suspension bridge high on the peak - at 3,041 meters in altitude (9,977 feet) with a 500 meter drop directly below (1,640 feet).
Don't look down.... too late.
Somehow less scary on the Ice Flyer
Heights like that are not my favorite thing ever, but I managed to get over my nerves to cross the bridge (although I got dizzy taking a picture of my feet on the bridge).  The chairlift was cool too, but might have been cooler if you could see more than just the white clouds.  Definitely fun though.  And when we got back, I made a snow angel on Mt. Titlis at nearly 10,000 feet above sea level.
The mountain was pretty thick with clouds that day, although the snow was great for skiing (and snow angels).  Even though it would have been pretty great to see the mountain on a clear day, I think that the mountain has a completely different feel in each kind of weather so it was a treat to see the mountains in two completely different ways between Saturday and Sunday.

If there is time, it would be great to go back to Engelberg in the spring to see Mount Titlis on a clear day as well as hike below the mountain at Lake Trubsee and take a boat out on the water.
(not my picture, but I'd like to go when it looks like this too)
Luzern (Back Again)
On our way back to Geneva from Engelberg, our train stopped through Luzern.  Since we still had an evening left, we decided to spend it in Luzern.  The first time I went to Switzerland, as an undergraduate student in 2010, I came to Luzern to visit my cousin and see the town/country.
Luzern on a cloudy summer day in 2010
It was such a memorable trip, and even though my cousin was unable to join us today, I knew exactly where I wanted to go first: to the old wooden covered bridge and then to the lion.
On the Wooden Bridge
The lion statue (Lowendenkmal) is my favorite landmark in the town.  I know the bridge might be the oldest wooden bridge in Europe and all (with paintings from the 1600s that survived a fire in the 1990s), but the Lion, in the words of Mark Twain, is "the most mournful and moving piece of stone in the world."  The statue is a memorial for the Swiss guards who died in 1792 during the French Revolution.  The statue itself was designed by a Danish artist (Berthel Thorwaldsen) then carved into the sheer ("شیر" also means "lion" in Farsi!) sandstone face by Lucas Ahorn in the 1800s.  The Latin inscription underneath the statue means, "To the bravery and fidelity of the Swiss."
Lion, Winter 2014
The lion rests in the rock above a shallow pool of water and next to a woodsy park with glacier rock formations and a view over the city.  You can see the lion's strength, pain, and grace in the statue.  Seeing it again four years later, it still speaks to me just as powerfully as the first time I visited.
Lion, Summer 2010
After taking my friends to the lion, we walked back along the river to find a restaurant that was open.  Luzern is definitely more lively at night than some other Swiss towns and cities, but we were wandering around on a Sunday night, meaning our luck was about the same.
We finally found one restaurant open along the water with some good Swiss food.  From the restaurant, we still had about 40 minutes to wander around the Old Town a bit before heading back to the train station to jump on our train for Geneva.  The Old Town was pretty empty, but the fountains were still illuminated, as were the bridges and buildings along the water.  It was a beautiful end to our weekend adventure.
Now, back on the train to Geneva and back to work at 8:00am on Monday - starting French classes tomorrow, so that should be interesting.
Already planning for the next adventure!


Anonymous said...

Wow! these pictures and your wonderful videos are just amazing. I love the blue lakes, mountain scenes and cities. I love your picture at the end with the little red book of dreams. nice touch! JO

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