Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Up the Alps - right up them!

We did not have to get up so early today, so the alarm was set for 7:30 am. Trouble was that neither of us slept too well. Today dawned clear and cool – no, hang on a second, it is raining. Hang on, no its not – oh bugger, yes it is! This set the pattern for the day! We pack up the gear before we head up to the main building for a later breakfast at about 8:45 am. At least it is not raining as we go up for a repeat of yesterday’s breakfast. We see a different crowd at breakfast – guess these are the non-early risers! I give the muesli a pass today (can’t swallow cardboard!) and opt instead for the hodge-podge that is a mix of lots (even some muesli kicked in for good measure) but there are enough Coco Pops or similar and something with some honey in it that makes it quite palatable. And yes, Michael’s ‘snow-burn’ IS brown!

We sign on and check emails, read a bit and finally get away from the Youth Hostel at Grindelwald about 11 am. Then it is over to Lauterbrunnan as today we are going to take the gondola all the way to the Schilthorn from where you can see the trio mountain peaks of Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau as well as Mont Blanc and on a clear day, as far as the Black Forest in Germany. Well, that is the plan at least. We are amazed at the dates of some of the houses that we pass, although I am less so as I remember this from my earlier trip here. The oldest one we see today dates back to 1688 but there are many we see dating back to the early 1800s.

Once at Lauterbrunnan, we stop at the Tourist Information Centre to check the weather up the mountains because when we looked on the webcam from the internet at the YH it looked pretty dismal. The lass serving Michael told him that her information was that it was a full whiteout and that the forecast predicted it remaining that way for the rest of the day – damn! But low and behold, as he gets back to the car, the weather is lifting and there is even a ray of sunlight, so we head down past the waterfall where we took the photos the other day. Today it is a raging monster pouring over the cliff face with much more vengeance than the other day. The rain has obviously been feeding the stream that in turn, feeds it.

We drive around to Stechelberg where the gondola departs from and there is that clearing sky again! The thing is that the weather can be so instantly changeable here in the high Alps. But we figure that as we won’t be back this way, we may as well go up to see what we can see! There are plenty of cars in the car park, in fact we only see two empty spaces, so others are doing as us and damning the weather to follow their plans.

The ticket seller however shows us live camera footage from the summit. It is not looking good. In fact, there is total white through which two lonely figures emerge. “It has been like this since about 9 am” she tells us “and the weather people say it will remain clouded in. Why don’t you just go as far as Mürren and then if it is looking clearer you can buy another ticket through to Schilthorn.” “That way, you do not waste all that money.” Good advice from a knowledgeable local, which we gladly accept. So at this point we just buy tickets for Mürren – still expensive at 20.40 CHF each for a 10 minute ride. There are still plenty of others going this far as well and our gondola heads up mountain with about 30 people aboard.

Now when I say we headed up mountain, that is exactly what I mean. No sooner do we set off from the landing platform than we are heading sharply upwards and it is not long before we are almost going vertically up the side of the cliff – OK, OK maybe not 90°, more like 75-80°! We pass lots of waterfalls, up close and personal to their crevices in the cliff face. We top the cliff and stop at the stop of Gimmelwald where we all have to get off and change to the next gondola for Mürren. You see, these things can’t do U turns, so instead they do one leg each. So once we are in the next gondola, we head further up mountain, but almost doubling back on the route we have just come. This ride is not quite so steep, but still every bit as spectacular. Even today with the low cloud and intermittent rain, the views down to and across the valley are stupendous. Valleys and hills (read mountains here, even though the locals refer to them as hills!), waterfalls and streams, amazing examples of upthrust and contorted rock. On a clear it must be magic! Indescribable magic!, but today – well the clouds continue to muster!

Once at Mürren we take a stroll through town. There are a good number of local dwellings and also lots of accommodation houses. This is no doubt to serve the skiing / walking fraternities dependent on the season. The local butcher cum general store stocks local delicacies and there is a cheese house for tastings as well as a photo lab (wonder how much business they get these days with the popularity of digital cameras?) and a couple of souvenir shops. The cloud is descending again and we can’t see any value in spending the extra 55CHF each to go to the summit to see nothing – so the advice of that first ticket seller was spot on. But, there is a funicular railway up to Allmendhubel – another vantage point, so up the steep paths we go to catch it – at least to get up to there!

Well, now fancy having the whole funicular rail system as your personal and private mode of transport – well, today we did. There was no-one else on it for the trip up, or back! Again this conquers a very steep climb with ease. We are surprised at the speed and smoothness of the ride – none of that clunking, jerky ride that we remember from our childhoods! Very schmick. In a matter of a couple of minutes we have been transported from Mürren that is sited on a wide ledge in the mountains back up mountainside to the next level spot.

There’s not much here – just a restaurant that claims to have a panoramic spot. Their advertising photo (taken some summer) actually shows a packed terrace and adjoining picnic area with amazing vistas behind. Today, we will just have to take their word for it as the cloud cover has increased with our higher elevation. Turns out that this is the starting point for many mountain walking paths in summer and the jump off point of a T-bar in winter. And even though the weather is shit, the walkers ignore it and continue to – walk!

But we are hungry and as the original plan was to have lunch at the restaurant atop the Schilthorn (made famous in the 007 movie ‘From Russia with Love’ with that Aussie 007 – George Lazenby) and that also featured in The Eiger Sanction, we decide now to stop and have lunch at Allmendhubel (
www.schilthorn.ch) at 1,907 m.

We’re not even sure if they are still open as there is only the staff seated, but yes, the waitress quickly assures us that we can have a meal. We choose a table that overlooks the valley (ha ha, as if today!) and take menu in hand. They have a good choice of foods that include soups, salads, sandwiches, pastas and meat meals. We finally decide on Schweinbratwurst mit Zwiebelsauce und Pommes Frites (Pork sausage with onion sauce and french fries) Michael and Pilz-Schnitte und grüner salat (Toasted bread with creamy mushroom sauce and green salad) Maria, both of us have a Schweppes Bitter Lemon followed by a Doppel Expresso (Michael) and eine Apfel Punch (hot, apple punch out of a sachet packet!) Maria. Nice and hearty and warm with lovely warm service by our waitress (we forget to get her name!) who stays and chats for a while. And it is not long before the family St Bernard wants to get to know us as well, although her owner hurries her away – “She knows she is not allowed to come to the tables!”

After lunch there is little else to do but take the funicular back down to Mürren and the gondola back to Stechelberg. And again we come across a Japanese lass with the strangest footwear for the terrain – high heeled sandals worn over a puppy dog slipper! She is certainly the topic of much comment at the Mürren gondola station and on the way down in the gondola. What is it with the Japanese girls and their shoes? The weather has worsened considerably while we have been up at Allmendhubel and our return journey is predominantly through thick cloud or fog or both. We can hardly believe our eyes when we see tandem para-gliders up in this weather – guess it takes all sorts. And as we leave Stechelberg, the River is an angry boiling mess, rushing down it’s path with the extra load of water.

And so we program Kate and head for Engelberg and another Youth Hostel. Our trip takes us through Brienze and along Brienzersee (the lake). This is another amazing example of the colour of the alpine lakes. And with a fairy-tale castle situated on its far shore, it is a real picture. The weather varies along the length of the trip – clear one minute, rain the next. By programming Kate to avoid the motorways and tolls, we get to see more of the ‘real’ Switzerland (and also to further experience the smell that we will never forget!). There is even a covered bridge – still in use over a small stream.

The closer we get to Engelberg, the closer the weather again gets. And although it is school holidays, we wonder at the wisdom of a scout camp in this weather – guess they would need a REAL good wet weather program Helen and Kevin! Amazingly, this could be picked up quite nicely and plonked into Australia and it would still be recongised for what it is. For all weathers – be prepared!

And finally I can answer the $64,000 question – where the inspiration for Pac Man came from! Switzerland of course, where it appears that the cheese chases the chicken!!! We travel up into the mountains yet again, hairpin bend after hairpin until we are in Engelberg and after a confusing ten minutes trying to convince Kate that no, I cannot go up that road that goes nowhere, we find the Youth Hostel right under our noses. It’s a real rabbit warren of a building but we must be ‘special’ people, because we have been allocated the ‘special’ room – a spacious family room complete with table and chairs and our own bathroom. Spartan but clean with 3 sets of bunks – oh joy! And the sheeting arrangements are – different! Seersucker ‘bags’ (think sleeping bag) that you place the mattress in. Let you know what we think of them after a night’s sleep! Oh, and the Youth Hostels’ internet is ‘down’ so I hope to get this blog posted tomorrow…..

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