Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Lauterbrunnen Valley

I'm on a train - again. It's seven in the morning, and the first shards of light are breaking through the clouds, as the train trundles along towards Bern, my first stop. I've been up since half five, and when I got the bus to the train station at about six o' clock the streets were still eerily quiet - something I'm not used to in this normally bustling city. The train station was a bit of refuge from the quiet streets - it never seems to close down - and also from the bitter cold outside that is surely below freezing.

I buy my ticket in a bit of a daze, and wait for the train. I didn't sleep so well the night before, and my grogginess and generally grumpy personality in the morning is niggling at me: "Is it really worth it? Wouldn't you be better off tucked up in bed" But the answer is "yes - it definitely will be" I'm full of uncertainties; it's a Sunday which makes things worse. I don't know what will be open (everything is closed in Geneva on a Sunday) or whether the trains will run late enough to come back home at a reasonable time. So much for proper planning.

I first read about Lauterbrunnen Valley in, of course, my Rough Guide to Switzerland, which has become something of a bible to me since my arrival. It absolutely lauds the place - calling it one of the most beautiful places in the country, if not in Europe. The fact that there are some reasonably easy hiking routes around the area sold it for me. Ever since I was in Sion, and saw in the distance the snow-capped mountains, I've wanted to be nearer to them; to see their awesome scale up close. Lauterbrunnen was the best place I could see, without having to shell out a fortune to get a cable car to the top of one of them - it can cost up to €170 just to go up and down, which is crazy to my mind. I have to start watching my money a lot closer.

Most of the journey as far as Bern is familiar territory for me now - I've gotten the train as far as, or further than, Lausanne three times. It's nice landscape, but nothing spectactular. The same could be said of the journey from Lausanne to Bern (which I hadn't been on before). It's Gruyere country - where they make the cheese. It's all pleasant green pastures and rolling hills. By the time we arrived in Bern, the transition to daylight was complete, but I didn't have time to stop. I got straight onto the train to Interlaken. One thing I did notice was that I was now in German speaking Switzerland. It's odd to go from one language to another in the space of an hour or two. I felt a bit relieved, actually. For the first time since I got here I could actually try and have a conversation in the local's own tongue - even simple things like buying something in a shop are difficult for me in French-speaking Geneva.

Things start to pick up once we leave Bern; lakes and mountains: we are in classic Swiss territory now. I can feel my adrenaline start to pick up immediately. All thoughts of my extremely early morning are forgotten. I stick some music onto my ipod, and sit back on the train (it's a big double-decker one), and watch the incredible scenery unfold before me.

I arrived at Interlaken at ten - I was actually suprised to have made such good time. Everything had gone basically to plan since I set off in the morning. It was incredibly quiet. There were a few tourists around, but not anything like I would have expected. I suppose it was the off-season, and a Sunday on top of that. I went for a short walk around Interlaken, but there didn't seem to be much going on:

These cows look like they're grazing in a field at the edge of town, but actually they're in a park near the centre! Very odd!

One of the big 'uns from Interlaken.

Japanese garden and a church in Interlaken

I didn't stay long. I wanted to get to Lauterbrunnen as soon as possible, so I got on the next possible train. It's amazing that the trains run at such a high frequency, even on Sunday, in the off-season, to a small village. It's even more amazing that they're nearly always full! The train started climbing almost immediately - Lauterbrunnen is at about 800 metres. It's in the middle of a valley, and we entered this after a few minutes. I could see sheer mountains and cliffs on either side, and there was a fast-flowing, white water river running alongside the track. The Swiss certainly know how to build railways that maximise the visual impact.

I got off the train at Lauterbrunnen, the last stop, and immediate
ly set off back towards the river I had seen on my way up. There was a path running alongside it, and it looked like a wonderful place to get photos. I wasn't dissapointed:

It was cold in Lauterbrunnen, and it was only to get worse the higher I got. It was a nice dry cold though, very pleasant.

The river 'Weisse' in Lauterbrunnen valley. It's pretty impressive.

Another two of the river - I could've stayed here all day taking pictures, but it was to get even more spectacular.

Lauterbrunnen was pretty quiet too - Sunday syndrome again I presume. After I had finished taking pictures of the river, I set off to find Lauterbrunnen's next attraction: The Staubbach Falls - a 300 metre-high waterfall cascading off the side of one of the many cliffs/mountains. It wasn't far from the village - and it was pretty nice, I guess. I think the fact that it hadn't rained in a while meant that it's usual power had been reduced somewhat. In addition to this, the path up to it was closed for some reason. It was certainly worth a look though.

The 300-metre Staubbach Falls.

Next was the main business of the day - a 900 metre ascent to Murren, a small, car-free village perched at nearly 1700 metres in the mountains above Lauterbrunnen valley. It took me a while to find the path, but when I eventually did it was well paved and signposted. I couldn't resist the opportunity to take some more photos, of course!

The lower mountains, at one edge of the valley. Still pretty impressive.

The start of my ascent

This is why I came all this way...

The walk was tough, but really, really enjoyable. It was extremely quiet - I felt like I was the only one on the mountain for most of the time. It was a heavily wooded area, but that just made the occasional glimpses of the Alps more exciting and enchanting. The walk is littered with streams, the ones that eventually become the '72 Waterfalls'. At this time of year, there were icicles hanging off every stream. All extremely picturesque - I was in my element!

As I've mentioned, the hike was tough - not impossible, but definitely some of the hardest walking I've ever done. Taking photographs was a great excuse to myself to slow down or even take a break. There were also lots of huts and picnic areas on the way. It was wild, but at the same time somehow civilised. I suppose it's to be expected in what is one of the first tourist locations in the whole world. And it's not hard to see w
hy. The scenery got progressively more breathtaking the higher I climbed:

It was also getting progressively colder; at Lauterbrunnen there had been a scattering of ice and snow: suddenly I was surrounded in it. It all added to the atmosphere, however.

I was really starting to struggle now: it was bitterly cold but my back was still drenched in sweat. I walked around another corner, and on front of me was a pretty spectacular waterfall. In front of it was a sign saying: "Please move as quickly as possible for the next 20 metres and do not stop due to landslides" That freaked me out a bit, but it only got worse, as I heard what sounded like a gunshot blast, and I saw chunks of rock falling about 100 metres above me! I was absolutely wrecked, but I don't think I've ran as fast in a long time! Everything was ok, though. I don't think that the rock was falling anywhere near where I was.

Eventually I reached the road leading to Murren, and to my relief it was level ground - I had been walking up quite steep paths for some time. So I strolled into Murren itself - about a 15 minute walk. The first thing I noticed was that it was completely deserted. For a while it seemed as if I had the entire village to myself! This notion was shattered when I saw some more tourists, cleverly having taken the easy way up from Lauterbrunnen; on the cable car. As I was now comfortable, after a quick bite to eat (chocolate and crisps, my stable diet when walking anywhere!) I settled down to take yet more photos. I had finally found what I was looking for. All memories of the discomfort of the walk melted away as I walked up to the edge of one of Murren's many viewpoints. The view from here is hard to describe without descending into hyperbole. Just look at the pictures, and imagine actually being there, and being able to survey the whole scene at once. The sense of scale was enourmous - I really felt like I was in the presence of something awesome:

The village itself was actually lovely. It's a series of mostly wooden huts huddled together on a plateau - seemingly for protection against the biting winter snow and frost. It's definitely a tourist village - it must be packed during the ski season, as it's one of the first ski resorts in Switzerland. But when I was there it was quiet. It seemed deserted at first, but there were signs of life - you forget that places like this actually have locals. I went into a small restaurant near the cable car station, which was a cozy relief from the cold outside. I've never enjoyed a hot chocolate so much in my life! After this, I went back outside, as the sun was setting. My last memories of Murren are watching the sun set over the Alps - absolutely magical.

I got the cable car back down - of course (God bless those cable cars!) I was suprised to see that the people getting on and off had bags of what looked like normal shopping - somebody even had a shopping trolley! Obviously this part of the Alps is still a living, breathing, normal area to live in. I wonder if the spectacle of the valley and mountains is lost on people who actually live here? I count myself lucky that scenery like this is so alien to me - the impact is incredible on someone who is used to the flat, green land of Ireland.

I eventually got back to Interlaken and then onto Bern and eventually Geneva, even though I was unlucky with a few connections which resulted in some fairly long waits for trains. It was late by the time and I was tired - I didn't care though, I got into bed that night a happy man. This has been my longest ever post, and I can see why. I don't think anything will come close to beating this trip. We're going to Mont Blanc this weekend, which will be amazing, I'm sure. I just think that the best is now over - I mean this in the least negative way possible.

This has been my