A first visit to the Swiss Alps: Conclusion

The Fiescherhorn: Looking south from our patio at Grindelwald.

It was about this time last month, on August 11, that I stopped writing about our trip to Switzerland, Germany and Austria.  Nine days were left unaccounted for.  Part of the trouble was physical.  I often came back exhausted to wherever we were staying and wanting to fall asleep immediately after supper.  But most of the problem was difficulty in getting a reliable internet connection.  At the chalet in Grindelwald, for instance, the wireless connection was so slow that it was all but impossible to transfer photos.  I waited 30 minutes one time before giving up.  Also, the mouse I used with my laptop petered out and moving the cursor by the finger pad grew tedious.  So  frustrated I stopped the journal.   Now back home in Phoenix, with a new wireless mouse, great internet service and a nasty cold hopefully laid to rest, I’ll try to fill in the missing days, August 12-20.

A flower garden near our chalet.

August 12, Sunday:  Grindelwald, Switzerland.  I awake early, every muscle beneath my waist in agony from yesterday’s 5-mile hike down from Alpiglen.  It is the descents that usually get me.  My butt, thighs, calves, quads and even the tops of my feet were unappreciative of what I’d asked of them.  I walk around our still-dark corner suite like Frankenstein’s monster, eventually nudging the sleeping Nebra to say I need a day of relaxation to recover.   While Nebra continues in deep sleep I begin an internet search for tomorrow’s rail trip to Jungfraujoch, a popular tour to an observation point high in the Bernese Alps in a saddle between the region’s two highest peaks, the Jungfrau and the Monch.

An exhibit at the museum depicts all climbing routes up the Eiger, including this one in Clint Eastwood’s film, “The Eiger Sanction.”

At 11,332 feet, the rail station there is said to be the highest one in Europe.  At almost every turn in Switzerland, you see an ad for this “Top of Europe” tour.   The ride actually takes you to your destination via a tunnel through the mighty Eiger itself.  In the afternoon at my plea, we take the village bus up  the steep hill to the Grindelwald Museum rather than walking as usual.   The museum is of modest size but contains a wealth of information and exhibits about the village’s history and climbs on the Eiger’s fearsome North Face.    We stop for supper at a clean, well-lit pizzeria on the main drag, Onkle Tom’s.  It is a great place, bustling with locals.  It is my best supper yet.  The green salad and Italian dressing are so good, I order a second.  The afternoon has darkened and a nice rain patters down.  I’d like to have had more rest but this will have to do.

Passengers at Kleine Scheidegg wait for train to Jungfraujoch, peering up at the Eiger.

August 13, Monday.  Grindewald to Jungfraujoch.  At the village’s little train station I plunk down $256 in credit-card promises for the tickets to Jungfraujoch.  The price would be even greater had I not purchased the Eurail pass which led to a 25% discount.  We catch the 12:17 train up to Kleine Scheidegg, and transfer to the Jungfrauyoch special on the south side of the busy station.  At the Eigergletscher station above, we enter the tunnel and come out 4,500 feet higher and an hour later with a few hundred other tourists at our snowy destination, Jungfraujoch.  Snow all around, but mostly sunny sky up here.

The mighty Aletsch Glacier as seen from a restaurant at Jungfraujoch.

Jungfraujoch station is like a theme park in the alps, a large building set on a knob in the saddle, white-capped Jungfrau on the west and the Monch to the east with several restaurants, souvenir shops and exhibits like the frigid underground Ice Palace.   Almost everyone ends up on the cold, open-air observation deck atop the Sphinx.  The deck, like the train, is loaded with Asians, cameras in hand, shooting stills and movies, so thick you often have to elbow your way to a good vantage point.  Four young Asian men ask me to take a picture with the Monck in the background, which I do, and they return the favor for Nebra and me.  Very collegial up here.  It is a great view today in all directions but north.  Grindelwald and the Eiger are socked in under heavy clouds.

The Monch from the deck of the Sphinx Observatory..

That big tongue of ice, the Aletsch Glacier, stretches out to the south finally sinking beneath clouds.  It is the largest glacier in the Alps, running down 14 miles from Jungfrauyoch.  A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2001, the Altetsch is estimated 3,300 feet deep at one point.  But there is only so much to see, and after three hours in rare air, we take the next to last train back down at 4:55.  An hour and a half later we are back in rainy Grindelwald.  While I’m glad to have done the Jungfraujoch bit, I don’t think I would do it again.  Too expensive, too many other gawkers.  In short a zoo.

Dinging at Alpiglen below the Eiger’s North Face.

August 14, Tuesday.  Grindelwald and the Eiger Trail.  Last full day in Grindelwald.  Nebra made room reservation yesterday for Wednesday night in the capital city of Bern.   I sleep restlessly, don’t know why, awake at 7 to see the friendly Polish couple next door checking out.  I like them.  They read books.  We catch the 10:47 train up to Kleine Scheidgg again, so we can hike the Eiger Trail from the Eigergletscher station.  I’m sore still but determined to do the hike.

Nebra with the North Face behind.

To me, this is the highlight of the Grindelwald trip, to walk under that vertical wall on the Eiger’s North Face where so many climbers have perished in falls or frozen to death,  dead-ended on a high ledge.   [I’ll write a detailed account of hiking the Eiger Trail in a separate piece].   It’s such a treat to suck in cool air in August.  Since we left Phoenix, not a day has passed there that temps have been under 90, a sweltering 90.  Everyday here has reached into the 70s down to the mid50s at night and predominantly sunny.  We get back to the chalet about 5:20 and later walk up to a hotel at the end of the nearby paved road.   An exhibit spreads out over the patio, showing how global warming is affecting this area and the Grindelwald Glacier up the mountain a ways.  A rapidly growing lake threatens to release an enormous wall of water flooding the region to Interlaken and beyond.  Very sobering.  [I hope to write more about this issue in separate post].  Nebra goes online again to book a room for Thursday and Friday nights at the Radisson Bleu in Salzburg, Austria.

August 15, Wednesday:  Bern.  We arrive in Switzerland’s capital at 11:52 a.m., on time, after taking one train to Interlaken and another to Bern.  Nebra feels worse than I do about leaving Grindelwald but shakes it off during an effusive train conversation with a young Japanese woman on her way to Grenada in Spain to study and work on her doctorate.  She’s from New Zealand and speaks perfect English.  I’m caught up in my stereotyping, thinking at first she’s from Kyoto or Tokyo.   Our lodging for the one night at Hotel National in the heart of town is disappointing.  The old hotel is undergoing a remodel, and we have to park our luggage and wait until mid-afternoon to  get into our small corner room on the third floor.  It’s 80 degrees, and the room has no air-conditioning and the slow wi-fi connection must be renewed every 30 minutes.  Even with the windows thrown open, it’s still hot, more “burn” than Bern.  And the noise from pedestrians, trolleys and buses rise from the bustling streets, enough to drive you mad.  The only good things are the National is only a 10-minute walk from the train station and the rates are good unless you eat breakfast there.  If you dine, tack on another 18 francs apiece for very ordinary fare.  While waiting for our room, we walk across the street into the business district in Old Town and lunch at a busy cafe in a park where a zillion Bernese workers are lolling and sunning during their mid-day break.  We do our own tour and eventually wind up at a bookstore, Stauffacher’s,  on Neuengasse:  “The largest and reputedly best bookshop in Switzerland,” I read.  It is sweltering inside.  No a/c again.  In a large room on the second floor (which in the U.S. is really the third floor; Europeans do not number the ground floor) you can find a wide selection of books in English.    Starved for serious reading, I purchase a paperback copy of Edward Whymper’s “Scrambles Amongst the Alps in The Years 1860-1869,” the author being the first to ascend the Matterhorn.   In the cooling evening we leave Old Town on foot, crossing the wide Aar River 128-feet below on the old Kirchenfeld bridge and descend a steep hill to the river for supper at a place dubbed the Riviera Bern.  The popular restaurant rests on an “island” off the Aar’s south shore.  As we enjoy a meal of chicken breasts and perch with Old Town high on the north.  I can not help myself, so I order a bowl of okra soup, my first ever, and spoon up every drop.  What a setting for even okra, much less the soup!  Nearby conversations are drowned out by the white-water rapids beneath our table where colored lights add a surreal touch to the glacial river’s flow.   At the end of the day, a miserable afternoon wiped out by a great night.

Our RailJet train to Salzburg.

August 16, Thursday.  Salzburg.  Arrived here by rail from Bern about 4 p.m.   It took seven hours by RailJet, the Austrian rail company’s sleek train with its attractive red and black theme.  “What a beautiful ride!” I wrote in my trip notes.  We glided along at almost 100 mph as if the train were floating.  No bumps and nary a sound.  No clackety-clack like on most trains.

Luxurious RailJet seating in first class.

Our Eurail first-class seats were luxurious with plenty of leg room.  Plus we had Wi-Fi and a table on which we wrote and layed reading materials.   A monitor at the front of the car had GPS and zoomed in on our route, showed the train’s speed, time and date, present location, itinerary, stops and times.  The only disappointment was the slow food service.  Changed trains at the attractive station in Zurich.  Had to watch the clock there.  These trains run on time.  Traveled through Switzerland, Leichtenstein and Germany to reach the charming old-world city of Salzburg in western Austria.

Checked in at the very modern Radisson Bleu hotel near the train station and in the evening strolled up into the central part of town.  It was a wonderful night, starry and warm, and the streets were humming with pedestrians and vehicles.   Passed the house where  Mozart was born just before crossing the bridge over the wide, glacier gray Salzach River into an upscale shopping and restaurant district.  On a hilltop above, the lights of Hohensalzburg Castle added a magical look to the scene.   Nebra fell in love with Salzburg tonight, and I will put it high on the list of places to visit again.

August 17, Friday: Salzburg.  Our primary goal today was to take a tour of Hitler’s “Eagles Nest” in the high Bavarian Alps south of here.   We took the #840 bus out to the attractive resort city of Berchtesgaden, a leisurely 22-mile trip covered in 44 minutes.  It was noon when we arrived at the train station, across the bustling traffic circle from the tourism office where the tour was to start at 1:15.  At the station, I drifted through the little bookshop to the maps area and was astounded by the huge number of German-language magazines on the racks.  Amazing in this era of digital.  We checked in at the tourism office, picked up some maps of the area and met with our tour guide, Christine Harper, who has a desk there.  She was born in Montana, USA, but said she has lived in Germany for the past 25 years.  She and her husband started the tour in 1990.  Soon we were on a bus headed up and up and up into high mountains where Hitler had his summer home and then up a narrow winding road to Eagles Nest, the Nazis’ showplace. [I plan to write a separate piece on the tour].   Eagles Nest, an aerie with large windows looking out on the Alps and all the way back to Salzburg was filled with other tourists.  We were given free time to look at the exhibits, have a bite to eat and to walk up the slope for an even better view.  At 4:40 we gathered at the bus and started downhill again to Berchtesgaden.  Back in Salzburg we had a supper at Indian restaurant not far from the Radisson.  Our waiter, also the owner, was effusive about his adopted country of Austria.  For anyone thinking socialism is a bad thing, you should listen to him for a while.  Tomorrow we return to Munich for the weekend, then head home on Monday.

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