I tend to start all these posts the same way, so I think I’ll mix it up and get right down to business in the first couple lines with a bold declaration: Switzerland (the Bernese Oberland Region in particular) is the best place we’ve been to yet. It was like living inside a postcard. I couldn’t take more than 5 steps at a time before having to get the camera out and snap another photo. And I’m usually the one trying to be really selective so that I don’t have to sort through all the photos later. That didn’t really happen on this trip. We ended up with 900 photos from Thursday to Monday, but don’t worry, they’re not all in this post.
It turns out Steve Frey and company went at almost the same time and did a lot of similar things. Check out his account of the action here. Must have something to do with the fact that we blindly follow the instructions of the one and only Rick Steves.
Getting to Bernese Oberland on the Golden Pass Line
We flew into Geneva on Thursday evening and took an early train to Montreux on Friday morning to meet up with the Golden Pass Train Line. The Golden Pass is a really scenic rail line that cuts through some of the best views in Switzerland. We didn’t even know about it until well after we bought our flights (Into Geneva and out of Zurich), but figured since it fit perfectly into our plans, why not.
We had 45 minutes to kill in Montreux before hopping onto the Golden Line so we stretched our legs a little bit. It was a pretty nice town right on Lake Geneva.
The train ride to Interlaken was really enjoyable. The only bad part was that the panorama view train cars didn’t allow you to open the windows. Therefore, the pictures weren’t that good, but here they are anyway.
After a few scenic hours later, we arrived to sunny Interlaken. Since we planned to head up to the mountains and do some hiking the same day we arrived, we had to hurry. We quickly found our B&B, a grocery store, and made our way to the train station. While you can do some hikes directly from Interlaken, if you want to gain some elevation quickly and explore the Lauterbrunnen valley, you have to take a quick 20 minute train to Lauterbrunnen and then start your journey.
Interlaken Day 1: Mannlichen to Klein Scheldegg
We arrived at the train station at about 2:00 pm. We told the man at the desk that we wanted to hike from Mannlichen to Klein Scheldegg (trail 33 below). The man explained that this was not a good idea because we probably wouldn’t have enough time. We would have to take a train to Lauterbrunnen, a mountain train to Wengen, and then a cable car to Mannlichen. And then once we got there, which would be 4:30 (with no mistakes), the last train down from Klein Scheldegg would be 2 hours later. He said the hike we wanted to do would take about 2 hours as well so there wasn’t a lot of buffer room. Since we only had limited time in this region, we took his warnings as a challenge and bought our train tickets anyway.
This was definitely not the most economical way to see this region. Ideally, you would stay in a town at a higher altitude so that you don’t have to keep paying to get up the higher trails. Oh well, Interlaken was a really nice home base with a relatively cheap grocery store.
Anyway, back to the play-by-play. The race to the top was on. We easily caught our first two trains on time and were headed up from Lauterbrunnen to Wengen, which had some nice views.
Next we hopped on the lift in Wengen to get up to Mannlichen with 3 minutes to spare. We had a 9 minute connection window.
Made it to Mannlichen right on schedule. Now we had 2 hours to do the hike or we would be walking all the way back down to Wengen.
The hike itself was well worth it. It was mostly level and we finished in a little over an hour. Take that helpful train station guy! Check out the views.
Success, we made it to Kleine Scheldegg at 5:30! We had a full hour to spare before the last train would take us back down the mountain. It was time to celebrate.
As we enjoyed our victory beer, we realized that we had time to continue hiking down the mountain to the next train station. Our handy guidebook told us we could make it to the next train station in about 30 minutes. Since we had an hour to spare, this was a no brainer. What could go wrong you ask? Well, there were actually 2 trails to Wengernalp. Trail 41 would only take 30 minutes. Instead, we accidentally chose trail 39, which was estimated to take 2 hours according to our map, which we decided to read after about 30 minutes of walking. After we figured this out, this caused some stress and I may have gotten a little angry when the thought of having to hike down the mountain in the dark came to mind.
Luckily, we met a hotel guide on the trail who assured us it wouldn’t take 2 hours. She was leisurely picking flowers and prancing around so it helped calm us down.
As it turns out, when it gets to be summer time and the snow melts at the higher altitudes, the cows are herded up higher and higher to eat the grass. This is also when milking season happens. The cows are milked at the highest altitudes and the milk is made into cheese because it is easier to transport. The Swiss take an incredible amount of pride in their cows and dairy products in general. The cow that produces the most milk at the top of the mountain is rewarded with the biggest bell so that all the other cows know he is a badass. Then when milking season is over, all of the cows are herded back down to the bottom of the mountain in a parade. We happened to be there when the cows were very high up in the mountains, which means there was no snow at the top and it was very warm.
We made it to the Wengernalp train station with 5-10 minutes to spare and safely made it down the mountain. It was fun racing against the clock, but we came close to pushing our luck a little too much. Either way, the views were worth it.
Interlaken Day 2: Grutschalp to Gimmewald
On day 2, we did things correctly and woke up early to get a head start on the mountain so we weren’t racing for our lives on the way home. We planned a very ambitious day of walking and it turned out to have even better views than day 1. We were at lower elevations compared to day 1, but the great views we got looking back down at the Lauterbrunnen valley were truly amazing. Our plan was to start in Grutschalp and take trail 2 to Murren, then ride the cable car up to Shilthorn (from the James Bond movie) and back. Next, take the furnicular up to Allmendhubel and take the Northface Trail over to Gimmelwald, which is Rick Steves favorite place. Piece of cake. Probably about 6 or 7 miles going up and down in elevation along the way.
Once again, we got amazing weather. It was probably 75-80 F and barely any clouds. Before we even got up to Lauterbrunnen, we decided to take a tour around Interlaken. After all, this city is pretty amazing in its own right.
Okay, enough boring city exploration, time to get some elevation.
After a brief exploration of Murren, we went to buy our Schilthorn tickets. The nice guy at the ticket office pointed to the live view at the top of Schilthorn and advised against it. It was completely clouded over even though it was sunny and warm in Murren. Since it wasn’t cheap to go up there, we decided to save a bit of money and continue on our hike to Gimmewald. We hopped on the furnicular up to Allmendhubel and began walking the Northface trail.
For me, this portion of the Northface trail from Allmendhubel to Gimmewald was the best part of the trip. We had clear views of Schilthorn and Jungfrau on either side of the valley and we had amazing views looking back down into the valley at Murren. There were also numerous tiny mountain towns and friendly Swiss cows playing their bells along the way. I can’t imagine a better way to spend an afternoon.
So after about 4 consecutive hours of walking, we made it to Gimmewald. We didn’t really pay attention, but we hadn’t taken any breaks since we started. We were getting quite tired and hungry but didn’t realize it until the end was in site. That made Gimmewald seem even more like an oasis than it already was.
We chilled out at the local beer garden for a while and listened to a group of Americans nearby. They had plans to go to Paris in 2 days but were all voting to stay put in the Alps for the rest of the trip. I doubt they did, but I can see why. Gimmewald was very unspoiled, which is probably why Rick likes it so much. There wasn’t much to the town and it was not very touristy. It was just local grass and cow farmers, a few hotels, and a few restaurants. There is a famous quote that goes, “If heaven isn’t what it’s cracked up to be, send me back to Gimmewald.” I can certainly think of worse places to go.
We had a nice picnic while we waited for the lift back down to the valley and reminisced about the natural wonders we’d seen that day.
As it turned out, we had about an hour before the Trummelbach waterfall closed so we decided to stop by. Honestly, I wasn’t sure how a waterfall could open and close, but it became very clear once we got there. Tunnels were carved inside the mountain so that you can get up close and personal with this roaring waterfall that is fed by a bunch of melting ice caps. There is even a lift that takes you most of the way up to the falls. The sound inside these walls is deafening. The power and sheer flow of water can’t be expressed in pictures. This was a good surprise and I’m glad we stopped.
Had to get a photo from the bottom of the valley.
When we got back into Interlaken, we decided that we need some more elevated views so we made our way to the top of the tallest hotel in Interlaken to check out the view. We were too cheap to eat here so we just ordered beer and dessert.
That pretty much does it for day 2 in Interlaken.
Interlaken Day 3: Paragliding and the Golden Pass to Zurich
Tara and I had discussed paragliding before we even got to Switzerland, but we weren’t really decided. It wasn’t until after seeing how amazing the landscape was that we decided to go ahead and do it. And there really wasn’t any time during our trip where you could look up and not see a paraglider, so it was pretty good advertising. We only opted for one set of photos (Tara’s) so our pictures are limited. It was an incredible thrill and I would do it again.
It was actually pretty simple to get going. You were strapped to your expert and he told you what to do the whole way. He basically flicked the parachute into the air from the hillside. After the wind caught it, we walked down hill, then jogged, and pretty soon we were lifted into the air and hovering overtop of Interlaken. It was a completely amazing experience. Those first few seconds where you lift off the ground and find yourself floating above the trees were unreal. You are literally flying.
The ride was guaranteed to last 12 minutes but we were lucky and found some thermals so we were floating around for over 30 minutes. It was really cool to actually gain altitude with a parachute. On the way down, my guide asked me if I wanted to do any acrobatics. I said yes, and it was also amazing. Essentially, he tilts the parachute to one side so you fall quite rapidly as you bank into a turn. You can string a few of these banked turns together to make for an incredible ride. My eyes were watering and it was a hell of a thrill. Tara opted for the slow and controlled descent.
Once back on the ground, we headed for the train station to catch the 2nd half of the Golden Pass train ride to Zurich to meet up with Tara’s high school tennis doubles partner, Steffi. Once again, the train ride was great. Incredibly blue water, iconic towns, waterfalls, and celebratory paragliding beers made the trip even better.
A few hours later, we made it to Zurich and Steffi was waiting for us at the platform. Tara hadn’t seen her friend for a few years so it was good for them to re-unite and catch up. I have only spent 18 or so hours with her, but I have concluded that Steffi is nicest person I have ever met. She walked us all around the city on Sunday and showed us the local hangouts. Then she and her boyfriend Philipp prepared an amazing BBQ in our honor. The next day, she devised a circular public transit tour that Rick Steves himself couldn’t have matched. She paved the way throughout this whole journey by doing all the talking (in German) and helping us buy all the right transit tickets. Thank you Steffi.
The next day, we set off for Steffi’s signature Zurich tour. The first stop was a trendy cafe for chocolate cake. She even tailored the tour to fit Tara’s top interest: chocolate.
After the boat tour, Steffi directed us to the correct train and sent us up to the top of Zurich while she went to work. It was another beautiful day. Not many clouds, although it was a little hazy.
Quick side note about food in this country. It all looked quite good, but the prices were pretty much robbery. We ate every other meal from the grocery store to try to offset all of the other expensive fun that we were having. For instance, a club sandwich in Zurich at the dessert place above cost $28. Steffi assured us that the Swiss people are paid very well to compensate for the high prices, but that doesn’t help the tourists.
After the top of Zurich, we headed to the airport and back to England. Like I said in the first part of this post, the Bernese Oberland region of Switzerland is my favorite place in Europe so far. If you like incredible natural beauty, cheese, and adventure, then you should not miss out on this area.