Sunday, July 5, 2009

Alps, not more b***** Alps

Now, for those of our friends back home, you might recall that these were the very words uttered none too quietly by Michael when I was part-way through showing my photos from our trip to Europe in 2006. Well, today I get my revenge - for those b***** alps are exactly where we are headed - Grindelwald, at the foot of the Jungfrau range.

Leaving Manigod was not easy in that we had spent a very pleasant week there and in the surrounding areas. We have set Kate for Lauterbrunnen in Switzerland and for once are happy to use the motorways as it will save us 2 hours on the trip across country. In order to get there we had north through Annecy, Geneva, almost to Bern before we head south east for the Jungfrau area in the Berner Oberland region. And yet, our final destination is almost due east of where we are. So why so far out of our way? Well there is a thumping great mountain range in between where we are and where we are going! To travel due east we would need to climb up and down quite a few of those mountains and cross many of the valleys!

And so, off we set. One last stop in the village at the boulangerie to get our final authentic French croissants and a baguette for lunch. We meet more traffic coming up the mountain today than we have any other day we have been here – due to a beautiful Sunday morning. But that doesn’t last real long. Down off the mountain we get to Thônes only to find the route to Annecy blocked. We have passed a whole stream of vintage cars –maybe a festival of sorts. There is one sign pointing to an alternate route, but nothing to follow it up! We drive for about 8 kms with Kate constantly begging me to turn left, turn right, turn around. By this time we have lost most of the traffic and I realise that by going through La Clusaz (the road we are on) we will add hours to our journey and may as well go over the mountains. By gosh, there has to be another route our through Thônes – I don’t care how big the event is, they would not be able to block the main road. So back into town we go, me getting more stressed by the minute – I mean, today of all days, just when we are trying to get somewhere in the shortest possible time – grrrr. The fellow at the barriers can only tell me to follow ‘le deviation’ and when I tell him there are no signs he points in the general direction of where we have just come. In the background we can hear bands playing now as well! So again we turn around and follow traffic but this time I play closer attention and realise that all the traffic is doing illegal U-turns to come back through town on another road. So when in Rome . . . and so do I.

That sorted we get through Thônes following a plethora of cyclists (maybe they too are part of the event) to the outskirts where we make a stop at the Museum of the Haute-Savoir Resistance (to the Germans in WWII). The sight of those 105 crosses in the bright morning sun is very moving. The museum itself has the original crosses that marked the graves of these brave fighters and a little information on each of the people. Really though, just a quick stop.

So back on the motorway we head. The traffic burns along at 130 kph and for once, I am happy to push it as well to make up for lost time. We come up to the border crossing just outside Geneva where there is a currency change unit with parking right on the motorway at the border plaza so we are able to change some Euros for Swiss Francs (CHF) and as we have already got our motorway vignette,we are waved through at the border point with no passport checks, no nothing! It’s not long before we hit the tunnels that I remember from Switzerland – long and curving – the longest one we travel through today is 3.065kms! The French go around the mountains – the Swiss just go through them! Traffic speeds vary – in the tunnels and just before and after them it is a 100 kph limit and at one lot of road-works (remember that Europe is full of them at the moment) it is down to 60 kph! Frustrating again!!! We don’t want to stop for lunch so Michael constructs our sandwiches en-route, on his lap in the front seat – roast chicken and cheese, please. Gosh the French know how to do bread – crusty with soft but dense bread, it is delicious. We follow that with nectarines we are trying to finish.

This part of Switzerland is much flatter than the France we have just left. Where there is not a city or town, there are a patchwork of crops – fruit trees, grape vines (that was a bit of a surprise), maize, sunflowers, hay, corn and the list goes on. We pass more apricot vendors too – must be the peak of the season locally.

But the whole trip is only 3.5 hours and we are soon travelling around Lake Brienze and then Lake Thunersee and before we know it we are turn off towards Interlaken and nearing its centre, we then head back into the mountains towards Grindelwald and Lauterbrunnen. The weather is closing in and the clouds are much lower down the mountains. I keep telling Michael that he will be blown away with his first view of the high Alps, so it is a bit of an anti-climax when the tops are all shrouded in thick cloud. But as we near Lauterbrunnan we are rewarded with the odd glimpse of snow capped peaks high above us.

Lauterbrunnen is known as the land of the waterfalls. We drive right through town to the area that (brother) Michael parked when we were here in 2006. And there they were, just as I remembered – three waterfalls. Staubbach falls spews forth over the top of the escarpment (you can just see the edge of the stream feeding it) to fall in a single continuous drop to the valley floor below – a drop of 300 m t=and the longest in Switzerland. You can climb up to a ledge about a third of the way up for magnificent views through the waterfall mist to the town below. Michael climbs up (the grade is about 30% with lots and lots of steps). And now the rain starts to fall. The clouds have come almost all the way to the ground and are now emptying their contents on all and sundry. And yet, it is not cold.

With a quick stop to get information about the cable car that goes from here up to Mt Schilthorn 2973 m (9748 feet). There is no-one in the office, but Michael manages to get a timetable. As we head down towards the turnoff for Grindelwald we pass huge humps of drying grass (balanced on timber tripods). The smell is amazing – all rotting grass and cow dung – phew. I had warned Michael about the smell of countryside Switzerland and he agrees that I was right. But where you have grass you have cows and where you have cows you have methane and faeces! Still, doesn’t really take too long to get used to it. (The difference to home is the damp wet musty smell that accompanies it all – at least at home it dries out and stops ponging!)

And so finally to Grindelwald. The town has grown substantially in the last three years and where there were previously some empty hillsides, now there are shoulder to shoulder chalets and ski shops and hotels and shops and garages. And ski shops, did I mention the ski shops?! Guess in the summer they supply the walking fraternity – it is HUGE in the Alps! We stop at the Tourist Information Centre to enquire re the weather for the Jungfrau tomorrow and the lass tells Michael that there is rain predicted for the next couple for days – but she also explains that the weather is so very changeable in the mountains. So off we go and part with 316 CHF (Swiss Francs) for two train tickets from Grindelwald Gründ to the Jungfrau Top of the World Station via Kleine Scheidegg. Yes, expensive, but who cares – this is a trip not to forget!

Much lighter in the pocket, we return up the hill where I head (from memory) straight to the Grindelwald Youth Hostel. A minor panic when we find the car park full, but one of the staff offers us a parking spot on the grassed roof of a garage! Must admit, I held my breath as I parked and did not park in too deep for fear of going over the edge! I think though that it is a regular occurrence given the tyre marks in that grass. We register in with Caroline at the desk. Friendly, super efficient and speaking at least four languages that we hear her converse with guess in! We are in the new block closest to the full car park. Dinner and breakfast however, is back up the hill here at the ‘old’ block. Dinner is served from 6:30 pm to 7:30 pm – that will be a challenge – we have been eating between 9 and 10 pm for the last couple of months! Michael takes a short stroll and discovers that many homes show a quirky sense of humour. And what is it with the fire hydrant half way up the mountain side - is it in case of a forest fire or to give some sense of security to the four houses a little way from it?

Our room is simple but functional. Towelling bottom sheets on the single beds pushed together and doonas. But we have a private bathroom with a walk in shower, so who cares! And while at 267 CHF, it is not cheap, but then those of you who have been to Switzerland will attest that nothing comes cheap here!

Who would know it! But it is getting darker much earlier and so by 7 pm we are ready to head back up. Dinner is simple but hearty – tomato and vegetable soup and bread, salad consisting lettuce, red cabbage and a mix of canned corn, grated carrot and tomato, pork schnitzel pocket filled with ham and cheese served with cheesy potatoes. Washed down with plain or spring water and finished with paddle pops. Nothing fancy, but it was all fresh and well prepared. Nothing like we have been used to in France that is for sure – but at a fraction of the cost as well! (16 CHF each). So now here I am – preparing the blog in Word so that I spend minimal time on the internet uploading it – at 6 CHF an hour I can’t afford to dally. I have prepared all the photos in advance as well.

Early start tomorrow – breakfast at 7:15 am so that we can get the 8:25 am train up to the TOP OF THE WORLD. Big day for Michael tomorrow – though I don’t think that he fully appreciates it yet!

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