Thursday, June 23, 2005

Berner Oberland: Where adventure awaits

What a day.

We got an early-ish start, knowing that we’d be going to the Jungfrau region today, and, well-supplied with food and drinks from our little shopping trip yesterday, we headed out to the station.

I had exhaustively researched the trip to the Schilthorn and all its many complications and choices – dreihtseilbahn? Post bus? Is a cable car the same as a luftseilbahn? – and I finally mapped out our route. The man at the Swiss Rail office was very nice and when I explained our proposed route he didn’t seem to think it outlandish. The whole thing was a kind of expensive ticket, (108 CHF) even with a 25% discount offered by our rail pass, but we feel like it’s worth it, since the ticket lets us pick and choose our methods of transportation, which will turn out to be important.

Apparently, we can use our rail passes to get ourselves to Interlaken Ost, an old ski resort town, but from thereon in we are on a private railway. Our new tickets, though, cover everything.

To understand where we’re going, you have to picture a long valley slicing deeply into the Alps. Interlaken, which, as its name implies is between two enormous and enormously beautiful, jewel-like, aquamarine lakes, is a jumping off point for exploring a few valleys, but the one we want, which I have chosen because it’s supposed to be less touristy, is the Lauterbrunnen or “Loud Falls” valley. On the one side of the valley is the stunningly huge face of the Jungfrau, beside the Eiger and Monch peaks, and on the other side of the valley are several lovely little towns and a peak that we’re going to the top of, called the Schilthorn. James Bond fans will remember it as the site of the revolving restaurant “Piz Gloria” that figures in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.”

From the Schilthorn side, we’ll be able to see the Eiger and the Jungfrau, instead of being on them, and since I’m assured that the trip to the Piz Gloria is all very easy to manage, I decide, probably a better place for me and my Dad.

We take a little train to Lauterbrunnen, the town. We’d been warned already that we need the front half of the train, since the back of the train goes to touristy Grindelwald. On the ride up I can see already I’m going to have to ration my film, because everything looks so spectacular you just want to keep snapping photos.

From Lauterbrunnen, we follow the signs to the funicular or cogwheel train to Grutschalp. I just like saying “Grutschalp.”

The funicular is sometimes called a lift, and it might as well be an elevator, because the thing, which looks like a multicompartment mine car assemblage, seems to go almost straight up the face of the cliff. Grutschalp pends over Lauterbrunnen.

Up at the top, I had proposed that my dad and I walk to Murren, because the views are lovely and the pathway is supposed to be pretty level, but I can see already that we have a lot of walking ahead, so we decide to take the mini train – a one car affair that holds maybe 50 people – to Murren instead. The windows are wide open on the train, and having been advised to sit on the left side, we are treated to some spectacular views of the mountains and valley below us.

Murren is so charming it hurts. It doesn’t look overly touristy, but does have a little of the simulacrum feeling. Are real Swiss houses actually THAT neat, with bright geraniums hanging out of windows boxes and lace curtains, carved fences and picturesque water troughs in the shadow of the Jungfrau? Maybe this is really how it’s supposed to be. Just like Heidi.

I’ve read that J.R.R. Tolkien traveled this way as a young man, and much of the Lauterbrunnen valley and mountains inspired his Lord of the Rings landscape. It was easy to believe, since the land is almost exactly as he describes, from the snowy mountain passes, to the waterfalls, to the villages nestled in the valley. We even passed a village called Isenfluh on the way in, and I couldn’t help but think that he stole the name for Middle Earth’s Isen River. And the cursive, semi-Celtic Swiss calligraphy that seems to be ubiquitous on all the houses and signs, closely resembles Elvish writing. I feel like a hobbit setting out on an adventure.

We pass through the town to the Schilthornbahn – a footpath to the Schilthorn is marked on the way there, but as it would mean ascending some 5000 feet up the mountain, the cable car is the way we’re going. It’s the longest aerial cableway in Europe, a sign helpfully informs us – I wonder, is there a longer aerial cableway in Kuala Lumpur, say?

The car ascends majestically, passing a stream and fields, where you can see truly happy-looking cows lolling about on soft grassy patches like contented cats. We change cable cars at Birg, which is basically a rocky promontory that looks like an excuse to stop on the way to the Schilthorn, and watch the altimeter climb to 2900 meters. Nearly ten thousand feet. I’m light-headed, or maybe it was the vertigo of looking down from the suspended cable car.

Once up though – and it was cool, though not cold up there, and yes, there was quite a bit of snow – the view is everything that was promised. You can see Mont d’Or, Mont Blanc – and countless peaks whose names we couldn’t even pronounce. The wraparound terrace lets you walk all the way around and suck in just how spectacular it really is. Maybe the Jungfraujoch is higher – the ticket was certainly more expensive! – but the view here just can’t be beat.

Inside the Piz Gloria, is a revolving restaurant where they are happy to serve you overpriced food, and you are happy to pay for it while you sit and watch the entire world go by. We get away with ordering two hauskaffees which turn out to be liberally laced with schnapps, and spend a good hour or so admiring the view.

The descent to Murren was uneventful, although I did wonder how many people faint from vertigo at the heights. The trip is a good one for older as well as younger people, though, since you really don’t have to climb a step. Really, when you get to the Piz Gloria, there are even escalators and elevators to take you higher, and it looks like everything is completely wheelchair accessible.

From Murren we have decided to walk to Gimmelwald, since it’s a downhill trip and the alpine flowers are in full bloom. The way is longer than I had imagined, certainly longer for us than the promised 30 minutes, but the vistas are totally worth it. Midway through, we perch on a conveniently shady bench and have our picnic. With chunks of fresh bread, Vacherin and prosciutto, and a glass of wine in hand, we were feeling pretty much like the world was our oyster.

The trek down to Gimmelwald pretty much does it for my Dad, though, and we resolve to take the cable car down to the valley floor at Stechelberg and then the Post bus from Stechelberg to Lauterbrunnen to catch the train back. I’m really wanting to see the waterfalls that I heard about though, and I find out that the bus makes stops all along the valley, so we can get on and off at Trummelbach falls.

Trummelbach was a bit of a bonus. I figured if we’d have time, we’d see it, since the one or two things I’d read made it sound like fun – a waterfall inside the mountain. When we got to the front gate, it turned out that it was 10 CHF to get in, and I thought, well that’s a bit much to go look at a waterfall. The man assured us though that it was to cover the lift inside the mountain, and so we decided to just go ahead and do it.

Nothing, not even poems to Trummelbach written by Lord Byron, could have prepared us for how amazing it was.

The funicular (more like a glorified mine lift than ever) took us up a ways into the mountain, and then the operator pointed us toward a path that seemed to dive into a cleft in the rock face. We could hear the falls, a kind of monstrous roar, deep and basso that made me shiver, and on the first turn in the path, we saw an astonishing rage of water boiling through a cataract. Some 20,000 liters of water per second was the information they gave, with the melt from the Eiger, the Monch, and the Jungfrau, all flowing through this one place. The falls must be even wilder in the spring.

The path continued back deeper into the mountain and as we made our way into the darkened tunnels, it became clear that the water had cut vast slashes and carved out great funneling tubes in the rock face, right through the mountain. Like dwarves, we went further and further into the misty tunnels, thoughtfully lit at strategic places, and at each new stopping place were more and more awed. The paths allowed you so close that you could feel the force of the rushing water, and then it put you above madly bubbling cauldrons. It was colder there, beside the glacier chilled falls, than on top of the Schilthorn.

Now this, I said, is worth the price of admission.

As we came out of the falls into the light again, I could see the grayish clouds moving over the Alps like the darkening of Mordor, and was quite glad for the advice to come early – the afternoons are always cloudy in the Alps. But the scene, with its speckled patches of sunlight and enormous fluffy clouds hanging over waterfalls all the way down the valley, was certainly nothing less than overwhelming.

Still, we were tired by this time, and happily piled into the post bus to Lauterbrunnen, and onto the train back to Interlaken. There was a bit of a wait for the next train to Bern, and so after a moment’s debate, we headed into the Coop supermarket to get some salads and sandwiches for dinner, figuring when we got back to Bern, we’d probably want nothing more than to collapse into bed. A couple of café lattes from the local coffee shop and we were ready to board the train, which came a little early into the Interlaken station. Little did we know what lay ahead.

Entirely exhausted, we slumped gratefully into our seats, hoping to have a nice relaxing time with our coffee and some cookies – ready for the hour’s ride back to Bern. Everything was running smoothly and I was admiring the views and taking pictures of the beautiful evening light over the Thunsee, when suddenly, the train ground to a halt. It stayed there for a good five minutes, and I thought to myself, the Swiss are not going to like this.

The SBB or Swiss Rail is renowned for its timeliness, and in a recent survey, they found that something like 80% of its trains pull into the station within a minute of the scheduled time --97% of its trains come in no less than four minutes late. Well, there we were, waiting, waiting, waiting -- and then I saw a conductor marching up the train and thought – oh-oh, definitely not good. I’ve seen that look before – on Amtrak. It’s the “I-hate-that-this-train-is-going-nowhere” look. This cannot be good.

After he passes by, announcements ensue in German and French, but no one around us speaks English, so we’re in the dark until a voice comes on saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, due to a technical difficulty we are unable to continue the journey. We apologize.”

I think to myself, well, that’s nice, but does that mean you’re just going to leave us here forever, between Interlaken and Spiez, then?

Well, to make a long travail short, we finally get inched into the Spiez station on the main line, and change trains twice, each one hotter and more crowded than the last, and we are over two hours late by the time the train finally pulls out of the station. Thank goodness we had no place to be that evening. We were lucky to have gotten ourselves dinner and ate it -- a little disconsolately, but feeling more fortunate than others who were stuck with what was on the snack cart. There’s been rampant confusion, and AFTER the train pulls out of Spiez, the conductor informs us that the train is going to Bern, but it will then continue to Zurich, not Basel.

When we arrive in Bern finally, there is absolute chaos at the Hauptbahnhof. Seriously, did I mention that the Swiss are an orderly, organized people? This is CHAOS. That must be one helluva a technical difficulty.

As we come down the stairs from the track, a horde of people in a little group are running against the tide, desperately tugging luggage behind them, rather like the train station scene in “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday.” Outside the station, a completely disorganized crowd of literally hundreds is milling around, with about a dozen buses pulled in front. Men in orange vests are shouting into bullhorns, “Thun! Basel! Zuricher! Luzerne hier!” People are dashing for the buses, which are a motley assortment of city buses, tour buses, private coaches, all with different signs indicating other cities. We take in this whole affair in amazement. There is a line of dozens of buses up the side of the bahnhof all the way to the Lorraine Bridge. I spot our city bus stuck in the line about halfway down.

“I think we’re walking to the pension,” my father observes.

You can measure the scale of the disaster by the fact that a trash can outside the station has overflowed with bottles and cans onto the sidewalk and the garbage is starting to scatter on the street. Unheard of.

I would learn later that we were caught in the largest collapse of the Swiss rail system in their entire history. A voltage drop near Ticino caused the entire system of the SBB to shut down throughout the country, and the rail officials were desperately trying to shuttle people by bus and plane to their destinations. I spoke with a guy stuck in Bern, who was staying at the Martahaus overnight in the hopes that he could get back to Basel in the morning. A sweaty, and decidedly harried looking official appeared on local TV saying they hoped to have everything back to normal by tomorrow.

We shall see…. I hope so-- how else will we get to Wien?

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