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Berner Oberland

Switzerland photos

Switzerland was the only major country in Western Europe I had failed to visit on previous Euro travels, for the obvious reason of its preposterous expense. With my financial capacity somewhat increasing since full-time employment, and the unique experience of receiving an income while abroad, I concluded that it was an appropriate time to rectify this gap on my travel map. I was accompanied by Australian Paul, otherwise known as Princess Paul, who decided that after months of lazily lounging around on a couch in the Netherlands, he needed to endure some hardcore alpine training under the command of the infamously ruthless but effective instructor, The Hummus Emperor. Furthermore, Paul’s girlfriend Dutch Karin requested that he return from the Switzerland with abdominal muscles, so I knew I had to implement a truly rigorous program if the impossible were to be achieved. Paul’s transformation throughout the week was truly remarkable, perhaps even inspiring, as his athletic prowess, strikingly similar to a sloth, evolved into something more akin to a barbery sheep (personally I’m more of a gazelle). Unfortunately, I was less successful in my attempts to improve his sophistication in manners, language and general decorum. Paul and I rendezvoused in Berne, before spending 5 days in Switzerland’s most famous and accessible mountainous region, the Berner Oberland.


Contrary to popular assumption, the capital of Switzerland is not Geneva or Zürich, but the quaint town of Berne, smaller even than Geelong. When the Swiss Confederation was formed, it was determined that the capital should be located roughly equidistance between Geneva and Zürich to placate concerns of French speaking or German speaking dominance. Hence Berne obtained its coveted status in a similar manner to Canberra (between Melbourne and Sydney) and Ottawa (Toronto and Montréal). The World Heritage listed old town occupies a peninsula surrounded by the aqua blue River Aare and features large, Germanic buildings with terracotta roofs and a surprisingly logical grid of cobblestone streets. Numerous church spires and clocktowers break through the mostly uniform architecture, including the 13th century Zytglogge. The Zytglogge with its astronomical clock is the city’s landmark attraction and occupies a commanding position blocking part of a major thoroughfare. Intriguing water fountains are interspersed throughout the old town, providing pedestrians with free crisp alpine water. The relatively flat peninsula is juxtaposed by the steep terrain of the districts on the opposite sides of the Aare, which provide magnificent views of both the old town’s compactness and paddocks located surprisingly close to the city centre (an unusual view in a sovereign capital). Berne is an incredibly green city with botanical gardens, parkland and clusters of huge trees encircling the old town. The city’s famed bear pits, which house the unofficial mascots of the canton (a growling brown bear features on the Bernese flag) has evolved into a proper exhibit freely accessible to the public.


While Paul and I only spent one afternoon in Berne, I really enjoyed the city’s beauty and summer atmosphere. In the humid weather, my favourite activity was joining hundreds of locals swimming in the River Aare just near the old town. We walked approximately 2km upstream of the main bathing area and jumped into the fast-flowing water, which carried us back to our starting point. As we ambled upstream, we were caught on camera by a local film-crew who naturally burst into hysterics at my witty observation about our brush with fame. We again entertained the film-crew when we floated past them, as I demonstrated perfect butterfly technique while Paul demonstrated anything but. For those unfamiliar with Paul’s professional history, he briefly worked as a swimming instructor – a curious place of employment for someone with a rather dubious ability to swim (fortunately, “teaching” early primary school students in the shallow end of the pool meant that he was always able to stand up during classes).


The Jungfrau region in the Berner Oberland is one of the world’s great alpine wildernesses. Although highly developed and touristic, the associated infrastructure is actually part of the appeal of travelling through the region. The public transport network is truly phenomenal, a combination of trains, cable-cars and furnicular trams connecting tourists with every village and key viewpoint in the mountainous landscape. Consequently, despite its immense popularity, the Jungfrau region is delightfully absent of cars between Lauterbrunnen and Grindelwald. While the region is relatively small and can be easily traversed in a day, the innumerable hiking possibilities demand a longer stay. Paul and I looped through the region by catching trains from Interlaken to Lauterbrunnen, Lauterbrunnen to Kleine Scheidegg, Kleine Scheidegg to Grindelwald and Grindelwald to Interlaken; all ridiculously scenic and relatively short journeys that naturally departed and arrived at stations to the published minute (everything works in Switzerland). We used Lauterbrunnen, Kleine Scheidegg and Grindelwald as bases for exploring the region and stayed at hostels that would have been acceptable had our beds been made (I really hate paying for a dormitory bed at check-in and then being handed a pile of sheets to labour over – just build an extra 5% into the cost!).


The village of Lauterbrunnen is located at the bottom of its namesake valley amid unfathomably beautiful scenery. Very steep slopes, even sheer rock faces, rise dramatically on either side of the village just 500m apart. The valley floor is a rich emerald green of lush grazing pastures, with waterfalls cascading to clear streams. The village consists of large, wooden buildings scattered haphazardly on either side of the railway and major thoroughfare, which is festooned with the canton’s flag. On the edge of the village is an incredibly pretty cemetery decorated with roses and with unobstructed views of the surrounding landscape. We were based at the youth hostel in Lauterbrunnen for 3 nights, which featured an outdoor terrace to watch trains chug up the mountain to Wengen.


Paul’s fat-busting training officially commenced the following day as we hiked to the village of Mürren, which is approximately 800m above Lauterbrunnen and inaccessible by road transport. I intended to ease Paul into the program with a relatively simple trail, and lulled him into a false sense of security by hiking beside him for the duration. It would prove to be a learning experience for me also, as I discovered the immense difficulty in hiking (or should I say dawdling?) at a glacial pace. Nevertheless, our endeavours were certainly more adventurous than most tourists, who opted to invest their life savings in catching a cable-car and tram combination to access Mürren without raising a sweat. After some difficulty in locating the starting point to the trail (such is its infrequent use), we ascended the mountain on an access road through thick coniferous forest and eventually lush pastures, discussing myriad topics including extraterrestrial life and genealogy (Paul’s is far more interesting – no offence Gregory and Stevens families). We were completely alone for the first section of the hike, aside from a farmer who kept driving past and neglecting to offer us a lift. However, we encountered hordes of tourists at the cable-car station that would choose to complete the final section (flattish terrain) on foot, as if they were making an impressive physical output. Unsurprisingly, they were even slower than Paul, so we strode past them effortlessly into Mürren. The village sprawls on the side of the slope and consists of huge wooden alpine dwellings with lovely gardens. We lunched on a bench overlooking the Lauterbrunnen Valley and were fortuitous the overcast weather briefly cleared, allowing us to enjoy astonishing views of the region’s famed 3 peaks (Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau) and the dramatic sheer cliffs of the valley. We hiked at roughly the same level to Gimmelwald,, another car-less village, and then descended a steep trail. Shamefully, we were overtaken on the descent by a school group (Paul’s fault). It started to rain when we return to the valley floor in Stechelberg, so Paul suggested we switch to his preferred form of hiking, hitchhiking, and quickly secured us a ride back to Lauterbrunnen from a generous Swiss man (not a descriptor I typically associate with Switzerland).


We tackled the other side of the valley the next day by hiking to Männlichen, renowned for its panoramic views of the contrasting Lauterbrunnen (steep and narrow) and Grindelwald (gradual and expansive) valleys. Even though Paul was commendably ready at a respectable hour, we were still time restricted and decided to catch the train to the car-less village of Wengen first before proceeding. Needless to say, we failed to spot any of the hundred-odd passengers that disembarked with us at Wengen on the trail to Männlichen. For the second instalment of Paul’s training program, I instigated a relentless pace on the steep and unforgiving trail upwards to shock his body into some tough work. Since the weather was overcast and dreary, there was essentially no purpose in breaking. While Paul persevered, he eventually had to conclude that he was unable to handle the intensity and stopped mid-way (for a slightly excessive time period). We hiked through the cloud for the final stretch of the trail, as Paul valiantly conquered the trail without the need for more rest (although he straggled behind considerably). The reward for our arduous climb? Rain, coldness and absolutely no view. We weren’t even afforded kindness, as a grumpy Swiss woman kicked us out of the cavernous and completely empty cafeteria on the mountaintop for “making a picnic”. The Swiss, with all their filthy wealth, won’t even provide tourists with a free shelter to hide from the elements to eat their lunch at. An utter disgrace. On the descent, since we realised there would be absolutely no possibility of enjoying a view, we broke the natural serenity by listening to the last quarter of Hawthorn’s brilliant end-of-season victory over Sydney in Sydney (tantamount to a premiership). Paul then imposed us to listen to outdated heavy metal tunes, which he was thankfully too self-conscious to play when we returned to Wengen.


The train from Lauterbrunnen to Kleine Scheidegg was probably the most spectacular stretch of rail I have ever had the privilege of enjoying. Strangely, Paul’s mood was inexplicably sour that morning, although I suppose 3 full days of exposure to The Hummus Emperor will have that effect! As the train travelled higher into the Berner Oberland, the mountainous scenery became ever more breathtaking. We were extremely lucky to enjoy sunny weather, allowing us to view the snow covered profiles of Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau as we eventually skirted their bases. Kleine Scheidegg is not actually a town, but rather a railway junction at a mountain pass with a connection to Jungfraujoch. Nevertheless, you can stay at a handful of hotels at Kleine Scheidegg and explore the numerous trails sprouting from the station. The area is characteristically Swiss, with herds of cows with their (somewhat irritating) bells grazing on the slopes below sublime icy peaks. We didn’t hike on any specific trail, but rather scrambled over the bare terrain to find the best views of the triple peaks and the Eiger Glacier. This was an intentional ploy for the third stage of Paul’s training, in order to encourage him to take the lead by establishing our direction and pace (I only stepped in on occasion to avert potentially critical issues). We even dabbled in a spot of rock-climbing and abseiling, though abandoned that endeavour when the ropes began to ascend waterfalls.



The Jungfrau Railway operates from Kleine Scheidegg (2,061m) to the highest railway station in Europe at Jungfraujoch (3,454m), traversing through a 9km tunnel within the Eiger and Monch mountains. This touristic railway, an incredible testament to Swiss engineering, was completed nearly a century ago after decades of planning, construction and many deaths. At $150-$300 for a return journey, it is surely one of the most expensive forms of transport per kilometre in the world. I decided to consider a trip to the “Top of Europe” as a once-in-a-lifetime experience and paid for a ticket, while Paul engaged in the final lesson of his alpine training program before the examination – hiking alone. Jungfraujoch is connected to a series of tunnels leading to a tourist complex and an outdoor observatory station. Unfortunately, the weather in the morning was rather overcast, so when I arrived at the observatory station, the views were almost completely obscured by cloud. But as I shivered in the 1 degree temperature, the cloud conditions gradually parted to reveal a full perspective of the Aletsch Glacier sprawling below us, the largest glacier in the Alps with a length of 23km. On the opposite side of the station, I could view the green mountains of the Lauterbrunnen and Grindelwald valleys and the mountain pass of Kleine Scheidegg. A 30 minute hiking trail through the snow to another viewing area is also provided to allow visitors to fully immerse themselves in the setting. Needless to say, the views were absolutely stupefying.


Paul and I caught another train down from Kleine Scheidegg to Grindelwald, easily the most accessible village in the Jungfrau region and therefore the busiest and my least favourite. Its location is still tremendously captivating, as the village is spread out on the slopes of a bowl-like valley with the icy peak of Eiger on one side and green peaks on the other. On our fifth day in the region, we caught a cable-car to the minor summit of First and commenced hiking to Faulhorn under the blazing sun. It would prove to be Paul’s day, as he hiked at an impressive clip and I beamed proudly at the strides my protégé had come. The relatively flat trail, high above the treeline and affording constantly magnificent views, was littered with slow-pokes and targets for us to overtake. The final 45 minutes to Faulhorn however was up a gruellingly steep slope, which was the ultimate test for Paul’s progress. Similar to our hike to Männlichen, I refused us the luxury of breaking and set an aggressive pace. Miraculously, Paul not only handled the pace with aplomb, he even pushed further. He was so bursting with energy and determined to beat his mentor that he sprinted the final section to the top. It was undoubtedly Paul’s greatest athletic achievement, as I have been overtaken only 3 times while hiking uphill in the past 6 years, and a true testament to my inspirational coaching abilities. At Faulhorn, we had fantastic views of the mountains surrounding the Grindelwald Valley on one side of the ridge and Lake Brienz on the other. We then spent a leisurely 4 hours descending through pastures and forest to Grindelwald, encountering far less foot traffic on the way.


Alpine cuisine in Switzerland is probably delicious and entirely appropriate for the environs, but it was grossly unaffordable for me to conduct a thorough diagnostic. The only dish with a remotely acceptable price is the carb rich Swiss specialty of rösti. Rösti consists of shredded potato clumped together in a paddy like formation and deep fried (similar to an oversized hash brown). I sampled rösti in Lauterbrunnen as a main dish, covered in ham and mushroom on one side and cheese on the other, and in Kleine Schidegg as a side dish to sausage. Nice, but nothing special. We otherwise depended on cheese, salami and bread for lunch and pasta and lentils for dinner, which had a most unfortunate impact on Paul’s digestive system. It was quickly apparent on the first evening that I would need to be on cooking duties, as Paul spent 10 minutes dicing an onion (unfinished) on a steel hot plate he had mistaken for a chopping board.


Despite our extensive and often simultaneous overseas jaunts, Paul and I had never properly travelled together – just met up briefly in the Netherlands and Belgium. So our trip through the Berner Oberland was a new and very successful chapter in a two decade friendship. Hiking in the Alps on my own would have been a spectacular experience (and generally more efficient), but so much less fun than laughing hysterically with Paul at our nutty jokes. Thanks to Paul for joining me in Switzerland and providing an easy target for this entry – it was all too short!


That’s all for now,


Switzerland photos

Posted by Liamps 00:08 Archived in Switzerland

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