A rare glimpse of a cold, desolate coast

The south of Greenland and its receding ice cap.

We are flying at 40,000 feet on an arc over that vast empty desert of an ocean called the North Atlantic.  It is August 20, midafternoon, and every window in the plane’s cabin is shuttered so tired eyes can rest on this 9 1/2 hour daylight flight from Munich to Philadelphia.  Then suddenly the pilot’s excited voice is on the intercom.

“It’s an unusually clear day,” he is saying, “and if you look out the right side you’ll be able to catch a rare view of Greenland.”

Nearly every shuttered window pops open and many rush to take a gander at this giant northern island that is more than three times the size of Texas.  There is probably nothing so large on earth that is seen so little.

Greenland’s rugged southwest coast laced with fjords.

As large as it is it takes a moment or two for my eyes to register it.  At first I see only a formless blob of blueish-gray.  Then some of it turns white, recognizeable now as snow, and then some tinges of purple, the coast.  And at last there it is, a breath-taking composite of this cold, desolate land that so few actually see first hand.

I estimate we are about 50 to 100 miles south of  the island’s southernmost tip, Cape Farewell, and for about 15 minutes, from 2:13 to 2:29 local time, I sit there, camera in hand, enraptured by it all, as we graze Greenland and gaze out at the humongous ice cap that dominates the island’s center with high peaks rising out of it.  Fjords, glaciers, the brilliant blue sea with the white dots I think at first are boats but which actually are ice bergs.

White dots in the sea are ice bergs.

Ultimately this vision comes to a climax.  We cross past the starkly beautiful southwest corner where lying there indistinguishable is the Isua Greenstone Belt, home to some of the oldest-known rocks on earth.

This is how it happens sometimes.  Life’s biggest treats come when you least expect them.  Here I am suddenly thrust as close as I will likely ever come to the Arctic Circle on the clearest of days in a cloudy part of the globe.  To see this magnificent island, which among the world’s many alien places can honestly say it is virtually untouched, well, it buckles the soul.

It leaves me happy and firmly attached to a memory I know will never go away.

Unscheduled stops

Our train from Zurich to Salzburg stopped unexpectedly on the 16th at a small place called Nendeln to allow another train to pass.  Traveling on yet another train, from Salzburg to Munich on the 18th, we came to a long and mysterious halt at a place called Freilassing.  Both unscheduled stops held more significance than I could have imagined.

On the 16th, we had just pulled out of Buchs, in Switzerland.  I remember Buchs for a couple of reasons.  It was described over the train’s audio system as “the border town of Buchs.”  But what border?  There could be only one possibility, I thought.  Since our next scheduled stop was in Feldkirch, Germany, the answer seemed clear.

The second thing I remember about Buchs is the mural of Elvis Presley on the wall of a barn.  If you are seated on the left side of the train you can not miss it.  There he is, the King, dressed in white, legs stretched wide as he performs endlessly with a guitar.

Less than 10 minutes later, we came to the seemingly meaningless stop at Nendeln.

It was not until later that day that I began to wonder how close we had come to the little country of Liechtenstein.  Nebra and I had originally tried to schedule one of our trip segments through Liechtenstein but had given up.   We thought nothing of it when we rearranged our trip from Bern.  Instead of going back through Munich, we would take a direct route straight to Salzburg.

With a small amount of research I discovered that between the scheduled stops of Buchs and Feldkirch was, lo and behold, Liechtenstein and that Nendelm was a community in that country.  So, not only had we zipped through Liechtenstein at fast speeds but we had actually stopped there!

On the 18th headed to Munich, we came to a sudden stop at Freilassing, a suburb of the Austrian city of Salzburg but located in Germany.  In due time a strange announcement came to our ears, first in undecipherable German and finally in English.  A “short delay” because:

“A man jumping in train.”

The first thought was a humorous one.  Why would a train stop for someone who was doing calisthenics in one of the coaches?  But of course that was not the meaning.  I figured it was an attempted suicide, that a man had probably leaped into the train’s path.  But we never knew for sure.  The only thing for real was that the delay took an ungodly 80 minutes.  It had to be something serious.

I looked the next day in Munich for any indication of a suicide at Freilassing but found nothing.  One of life’s mysteries that will never be known, I suppose.

Anyway, unscheduled stops can sometimes be very interesting and perhaps tragic.

A first visit to the Swiss Alps

Nebra and I planned this trip last winter, in 2012.  The central idea was to escape the cruel summer heat of Phoenix and hike in the Swiss Alps.  The dates:  August 4 to 20.  The itinerary:  Fly to Munich and travel by train to Grindelwald, Switzerland, where we would stay a week in the shadow of some of the highest peaks in Europe.   After that the trip fell into a land of fuzziness.  Back to Germany maybe, a side trip into Austria.  We purchased Eurail passes over the Internet and made train reservations from Munich to Interlaken, Switzerland, where we would spend one night.  The next day we’d take the local train up to Grindelwald, a 34-minute ride.  In the meantime, we had locked in seven nights at a chalet apartment about a mile from the Grindelwald town center.  And off we’d go.

On arrival, the “M”s of Munich Airport

August 4-5, Saturday-Sunday:  Munich. Arrived shortly after 9 a.m. on Sunday.  Beaten down after 14 1/2-hour day of travel from Phoenix via Philadelphia.  Fascinated by the Airbus A330’s GPS showing on the monitor as we passed over New York City, Boston, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, then over the dark North Atlantic south of Greenland, finding land again in southern Ireland, on down south of London where the Olympic Games are going on, and finally Brussels, Frankfurt and Munich, 10 minutes behind schedule.  Cloudy, 64 F. here, the pilot reported.  Took the S-1 rail into the bustling central train station and checked in at the Hotel Treff a few blocks south.  It’s owned by Ramada and had the fresh-paint smell of a recent renovation.  Nice place, decent rate.

The front window of a Starbucks near Old Town.

We walked over into busy, busy Old Town and gathered with hundreds of others at the Marienplatz for the 5 o’clock Glockenspiel musical performance by mechanical toys in the bell tower of the New City Hall, which is older than almost any building in Munich.  A violent wind and thunderstorm hit about 5:45, forcing us to take shelter under the storefront porticos and then getting slightly wet on the return trip to the hotel.  Welcome to Munich.

Munich, a city of bicyclists.

August 6, Monday:  Munich.  The Hotel Treff puts out a terrific breakfast buffet, 6:30 to 10:30, in a long basement room with numerous tables nicely covered in linens.   But  at a cost of 15 euros per (about $20 U.S.), it’s a real gut check in more ways than one.  Omelets, cereals, juices, boiled eggs, ham, link sausages and bacon, milk, coffee, pastries and breads, salami and other meats and pasta salads.  Just amazing.

Hitler spoke here in the Hofbrauhaus.

Hustled out to Old Town to catch a 2 1/2-hour walking tour of “Hitler’s Munich” at 10:15.  The tour guide, Levi, is from Wisconsin, an ex-pat who has lived in Germany for more than four years.  He collects our 24 euros for two and we soon set off on foot from the New City Hall with 10 others under a warm sun.  Astonished to see three others from Arizona on the tour.  This area in and around Old Town was the birthplace of Hitler’s Nazi Party.  The Beer Hall Putsch et al.  We visit  the Hofbrauhaus, a drinking palace where Hitler delivered some of his rallying speeches to pack crowds in the third-floor hall.  Levi says nearly 20,000 liters of beer are served here daily.

In Old Town, a museum of Nazi history rises.

It’s not surprising to hear that a clutch of neo-Nazis show up every November 9 to celebrate the old days.  More than 80 percent of Munich was destroyed by Allied bombers during World War II, and I’m almost stunned to learn the city is still trying to recover here 67 years later.  Much construction going on, high-rise cranes at every turn.  One of those construction sites is the much-anticipated museum of the National Socialist Party (Nazi), due for completion in 2014.  Neither Nebra or I speak German, but we manage to order meals, find toilets, shop, et cetera without much trouble.  Another big rain this evening.  This one lasts for hours.  Tomorrow we travel topho Grindelwald and the Swiss Alps via train.

August 7, Tuesday:  Interlaken.  Ideally to travel efficiently by train from Munich to the Swiss Alps at Grindelwad, you would make a hard line to the southwest.  But, no.  A mass of mountains is in the way.  So you skirt the mountains by taking the fast trains, first to Karlsruhe to the northeast, then bearing south along the Rhine on another train, crossing into Switzerland at Basel and finally arching back to the southeast to Bern, Interlaken and Grindelwald.  By the time we reach the station, Interlaken Ost, just before 4 o’clock, we have been riding rails for 7 hours, 11 minutes in passenger cars barely half filled and have completed a near half circle west from Munich.  It is not until after Bern, near Thun, that you begin to see the high Alps for the first time, dark and menacing in slow-swirling cloud today, and in another 10 minutes, near Spies, the highest snow-capped peaks emerge, majestic and awesome.  Seeing them, I feel a strange mix of joy and foreboding.  Riding along the southern shore of the brilliant blue lake, Thunersee, into Interlachen, my mood bounces back, happy to be alive, happy I am fortunate enough to see such beauty at least once in a lifetime.  We check-in at the Hotel du Lac for the night.  It reeks 19th Century and is snuggled on the south bank of the glacier-fed Aare River.  The river moves swiftly though here, its grayish water reflecting some green from the nearby hills.  Our nice corner room on the 4th floor, opened by a weighted skeleton key, looks south across a few trains at the Ost station into a narrow valley and beyond, in the distance rising high, is the snowy magnificence of Jungfrau, the highest peak in the region at 13,642 feet.  It’s great to be in the Swiss Alps.  Tomorrow we venture into the heart of them at Grindelwald.

August 8, Wednesday:  Interlaken and Grindelwald.  The first thing that would strike Americans about Switzerland is the huge prices commanded at restaurants.  Last night we ate supper at Hotel Interlaken restaurant and paid $86 US for entrees and two glasses of Merlot that back in Phoenix would have cost us half that much.  (The Swiss Franc, or CF, has an exchange rate slightly above an US dollar.)  This was not a 5-course meal.  I had a large serving of Swiss whitefish at CF 43 and Nebra had a beef-kabob for slightly less.  Our waiter, a young German man, said it took him two weeks to understand the German language spoken by more than 80 percent of the Swiss in this region.  The Swiss write in understandable German, but they speak in a dialect all their own.  Internet service at the Hotel du Lac is spotty.  I could not connect via the broadband in our room, so, up at 7, I carry my laptop down to the lobby for a good wi-fi connection.   While Nebra sleeps, I wander out into the early-morning cool to see what was open at 7 o’clock in Interlaken.  I find virtually nothing.   At last I run across a hotel buffet serving breakfast for 25 francs.  I gulp down my pride and eat anyway.  Our check-in time in Grindelwald is 4 o’clock, so we have time to kill here in Interlaken, a charming yet very touristy city with at least four large hotels, one the 5-star Victoria Jungfrau that rests with the best view in town of the famed Alpine trio of Jungfrau, the Monch and the Eiger.  This fantastic view is kept secure by an open field in front of the hotel, a half mile by a half mile I guess, for which I’m sure the owners paid a pretty penny.   In early afternoon, we catch the steep funicular up to Harderkulm, an observation point of the snowy Alps from about 2,000 feet above Interlaken.  The view is great, the place humming with visitors.  At 4:05 we take the little train up to Grindelwald.  At an elevation of 3,392 feet, it is a few thousand feet abover Interlaken.   Just like clockwork it arrives in 34 minutes.  Our host is there to meet us at the bahnhof, or train station, and drives the mile north to our chalet apartment.  I am staggered by the view from our patio.  High above us on the right stands the mighty Eiger and to the left the even higher Feischerhorn massif with it large tongue of dirty glacier ice seeming headed right at us.   Absolutely breath-taking for someone who has lived in flatlands and parched desert most of his life.  Over supper at a small restaurant on Grindelwald’s main drag, we stare up into the huge shadow that is the Eiger and see three bright isolated lights.  I imagine they are climbers on the North Face of this “the most dangerous mountain in Europe.”  Many climbers have lost their lives up there.  I recently saw the decades-old Clint Eastwood film, “The Eiger Sanction,” and got a harrowing idea what scaling it must be like.  Anyway, we’re definitely in the Swiss Alps now.

August 9, Thursday:  Grindelwald.  First full day here.  Our chalet lays in the valley below the village, about 3/4 mile distant.  To get to town on foot, we cross a bridge above a rapid glacier-gray stream, then climb a steep hill into town.  It takes about 15-20 minutes.  Grindelwald’s city center faces southerly, almost right into the face of the Eiger.  We can not seen the Monch or Jungfrau from here.  Hotels, restaurants and boutiques line the bustling main street.  Scattered chalets among green meadows everywhere.  The residents decorate their homes with bright painted window shutters, flower gardens of mostly petunias and red geraniums.  Asians are dominant among visitors from abroad.  If not an idyllic setting, then close.  This was an orientation day for us.  And shopping.  We bought postcard stamps, hiking poles and some groceries in the cramped Coop.  Nebra made supper at our apartment:  Chicken breasts, green beans, noodles, a salad of lettuce, tomato, mushrooms and yellow pepper, and ice tea.  Interesting statistic:  Portuguese is the second-most spoken language (4.5%), behind German (86.8%) and ahead of French (1.7 %) in Grindelwald.  Studied maps for our first hike tomorrow.

August 10, Friday:  Grindelwald, our second full day here.  Awoke early, stepped out on the cool air of the patio.  Far above the magnificent Fiescherhorn,  higher than the Eiger, stretched out its snow-covered  massif in brilliant sunshine, a wide tongue of “dirty” glacier worming its way toward the valley.  I hadn’t seen it yesterday because of clouds.   In late afternoon, we took the gondola to the First station about 4,000 feet above Grindelwald, the hiked out to Bachsee, a starkly beautiful lake about 2 1/2 miles to the west.  The undulating trail is smooth and wide, footing is small gray rock, looking out on a dramatic vista of snow-capped peaks, including the Eiger which is across the valley.  Nebra stops near a green pasture cut by narrow brooks to record the sound of cow bells.  Cows are everywhere along the trail.  We lunch on lake bank by two men fishing for what I assume is the Swiss equivalent of trout.  A very nice first hike.   Sore legs are beginning to catch up with me.  Especially the muscles used to step steeply downward.    Tomorrow we plan to hike on the other side of the valley, very close to the Eiger.

August 11, Saturday:  Grindelwald, our third full day here.  We take the cog wheel train up to Alpiglen to begin our second hike in the Alps, from the village of Alpiglen back down into town, or about four miles. The train leaves every 30 minutes from the bahnhof.  Alpilglen, at 5,295 feet elevation, is nothing more than train station, and a few buildings.  Live polka music is being played at the restaurant, where a dozen or more patrons loll under colorful umbrellas.  The trail begins at the station and descends steeply on the paved and lightly-traveled car road.  Switchbacks galore.  At places you can do shortcuts, even steeper yet, on loose gravel.  At the midway point, at a village called Brandegg, my legs are killing me.  Sore quads, groin, aching back.  Even the tops of my feet hurt.  We stop in tree-shade by a water trough for sandwiches we purchased at the Coop.  My solution, my very survival it feels like, depends on adaptation.  I move my backpack to my chest.  I know it’s crazy but it took pressure off my back and eased the discomfort in my legs.  In some case I jog downhill to save pain on my legs.  We take the long way around and finally reach the Grindelwald Grund station about 4:45.  It’s taken almost two hours to get down.  My pedometer tells me we’ve traveled close to five miles.   I’m exhausted, weary from dealing with the soreness.  But we have seen some great vistas.  Nebra, who is feeling less leg soreness, asks me at one point, marveling at the scenery.  “Is this what you had in mind when you thought about hiking in the Alps?”  “Yes, and much more,” I say.  The muscle pain was worth every step.