A LATE SUMMER HOLIDAY IN THE SWISS ALPS
Hello, World Traveler!
Are you thinking about taking a trip to the Swiss Alps? In this post, I’ll share with you my experience from a week in the Bernese Oberland of Switzerland- complete with where we stayed, how we got there and got around, what we did, and what to pack!
A LATE SUMMER HOLIDAY IN THE SWISS ALPS
Bernese Oberland, Switzerland
My husband and I have slowly been ticking countries off of our ‘travel bucket-list’. Together, we’ve been to Thailand, England, Ireland, France, Germany, The Netherlands, Japan, Portugal, Spain, and Italy. This time, we spun the proverbial globe and our finger landed on Switzerland!
If you don’t know where to look on the map for Switzerland, just look right in the middle of Europe. It shares borders with Italy, France, Germany, Austria, and Lichtenstein. (I totally forgot Lichtenstein was even a country. Sorry, Lichtenstein!) There are multiple languages spoken there, and the country is truly a melting pot of cultures. It’s the birthplace of The Red Cross and the Geneva Convention, and their natural resources and landscape-- ever heard of the Swiss Alps?-- are downright breathtaking. They’re super environmentally friendly, especially with their Recycling programs.
Plus, their cheese and chocolate are out. of. this. world.
So, yeah. Switzerland rocks.
DAY 1 – GETTING THERE (& SOME LOGISTICS)
We live in Southern California- about an hour South of LAX- so we decided to fly from Los Angeles (LAX) to New York (JFK), then New York to Zurich, Switzerland (ZRH). The time change is 9 hours from the West Coast of the U.S. to Europe, and total travel time from door to door ended up being about 22 hours (including trains).
Within the country itself, Switzerland’s travel system is wonderfully simple, clean, and efficient. They run almost all their own trains (they’re not part of the E.U.) so I spent a lot of time looking into the various travel options. The region we were going to- The Bernese Oberland- was better accessed by train, so we decided against renting a car.
There are transportation travel passes you can buy for varying lengths of stay in Switzerland. Some of these include boats, buses, cable cars, and trains, and some passes are more regional. The system may be simple, but selecting the right travel pass can be excruciatingly difficult.
It’s definitely expensive, like all of Switzerland, but I’m sure it’s worth the ease of travel that comes with it. There are some things that the Swiss Travel Pass doesn’t cover- like some specific regional trains, funiculars and cable cars- and I found it rather difficult to figure out exactly what was excluded, even after scouring the Internet.
We decided that we would spend the week in one main region, the Jungfrau Region, so we ended up buying the “Jungfrau Travel Pass” – which gets you pretty much everything within the Bernese Oberland. To get us better fares on things not included in the pass (like our train journey from Zurich to Wengen), we supplemented with the “Swiss Half Fare Card”. I did the math, and for us, this was the most economical option.
We waited to buy the passes until we got to the Zurich airport and purchased them from the travel office there, but you can buy them ahead of time online. I think it’s the same price either way.
Our train was from Zurich Flughafen (airport) to Wengen with stops and changes in Bern, Interlaken Ost, and Lauterbrunnen.
It cost us 44 Francs – one way, per person. This price was with the Half Fare Card discount. (A Swiss Franc is nearly equal to the U.S. Dollar)
The Jungfrau Pass for 4 days cost us 155 Francs each, with a discount because we bought the Half Fare Card, which cost us 120 Francs each.
Like I said, expensive, but this was the best option for us and the travel we were going to be doing. It definitely came out in our favor in the end, based on the number of trips we took on regional trains and cable cars between the valley towns.
ARRIVING IN WENGEN
Wengen is quiet, posh- a lovely resort town with quirky boutique hotels and traditional chalets. There’s hardly a car except for the electric “taxis” that take passengers and their bags to wherever they’ll be staying. On the main streets, restaurants and bars with sheepskin-lined patios are nestled next to a mix of high-end shopping and less expensive gift shops. There’s something for everyone in this little town that’s perched on the cliff at the West end of the valley- on the Jungfrau Mountain side.
We stayed in an AirBnB in Wengen called Chalet Stella. It was considerably less expensive than the adorable but pricey hotels we found, and had quite a lot more space. (It was three bedrooms, 2.5 baths and had 3 balconies!)
When we arrived in Wengen, we checked in to our Chalet, dropped our bags and went straight to the COOP grocery store (I think it’s pronounced Co-Op, but my husband lovingly called it “Coop” all week, like chicken coop!) where we stocked up on bread, meat, cheese, wine, fruit, yogurt, muesli, and milk so we could eat most of our meals at home to save money. Most of the dairy you find is local and AMAZING- you can’t go wrong! We had dinner in our apartment and finally collapsed into sleep after close to 24 hours of traveling.
DAY 2- LAUTERBRUNNEN VALLEY HIKE
After a quick breakfast in the apartment and coffee in town, we took the Wengneralpbahn train down into Lauterbrunnen.
Lauterbrunnen is down in the valley at the base of an incredible waterfall, and it’s the first big stop from Interlaken, the entrance into the Bernese Oberland from Zurich. It’s the hotspot meeting point for base-jumping, squirrel suiting and paragliding, and the crowd is young and energetic. Cars are allowed here and the streets are busy- and unfortunately sometimes full of tour buses. But wow, are you surprised? I mean look at this waterfall!
From here, we transferred to take the cable car up the opposite side of the valley to Grütschalp. From Grütschalp, you can take the train to Mürren, or you can choose to hike it instead, which is what we did. The hike from Grütschalp to Mürren was pleasant and easy. Along the way you pass through forests, amazing vistas, fields, and meadows ringing with cows bells. The trail follows alongside the train tracks, so occasionally you catch a glimpse of other travelers on the brightly painted train curving around the cliff ledge.
On this hike, follow the yellow signs- we found the yellow diamond “Wanderweg” paths to be easiest – pass Winteregg, where you can get some locally made gelato. We each ordered the strawberry flavor served in a tall waffle cone. It was so rich and delicious, it was like eating strawberry cheesecake. Here you can take a break, sit on a bench and watch the clouds pass over the mountain peaks.
At one point we heard singing coming up from the valley and turned to see a traveling backpacking choir singing traditional Swiss folk music. It was almost surreal, like we had stepped into another time. From here you continue on the path another 30-40 minutes or so to Mürren.
If Wengen is posh and quiet, and Lauterbrunnen is easy and happening, Mürren is somewhere right in the middle of the two. Perched high on the cliffs at the East end of the valley, it looks across the valley at the North faces of the Triple Peaks. Mürren is full of positive energy, incredible views, but also has hardly any cars, which makes it blissfully quiet. A walk through Mürren will find you lovely gardens, carefully maintained chalets, hotels, winding paths, wonderful restaurants and a variety of shops. Lots of hiking trails leave from and traverse through here. The demographic is a relatively equal mix of young and old.
When we arrived in Mürren, we ate lunch at the Hotel Eiger –a patio overlooking the mountains. The hotel front desk person came out and looked through a viewfinder telescope mounted near our table, finding the mountain house near the peak.
"The flag is out,” she said in English with a heavy German accent, “and they’ve opened the shutters. They’ll overnight there and climb the summit tomorrow to the top of the Mönch.”
She moved aside to offer me a look, and I obliged. I had to search a moment, but found the little wooden hut with red shutters, a climber disappearing through the small door. It was nearly invisible to the naked eye, a tiny speck on the face of an enormous mountain. But she knew exactly where to look.
People have been watching climbers brave these mountains for centuries. At least 64 people have died trying to make the journey up the North face of Eiger. So notorious it is that they nicknamed it the Mordwand, which means “Murder Wall”.
So, Matt and I watched the mountains from the safety of the restaurant, and enjoyed a coffee pick-me-up before we continued on through Mürren.
Don’t forget to stop and fill your water bottle in one of the town’s fountains, with water streaming from the mountain springs that literally tastes like Evian, because, well, it is!
Turning valleyside in between two hotels, (you’ll miss it if you don’t know where it is...we did and had to backtrack) you can start descending to the valley through Gimmelwald.
The path from Mürren to Gimmelwald is one of my favorites, an easy Wanderweg made for meandering. Weave in between wooden chalets with colorful shutters, lush manicured gardens and the occasional goat or cow wearing a bell.
Watch your step down the gravel paths, then catch your breath every time you look back up at the mountains rising up and the paragliders soaring overhead.
Stop at one of the little “honesty shops” along the way, where you can buy local cheese, beer, sausages and snacks, or any assortment of items. If no shopkeeper is present, just leave your Swiss Francs in the ‘kasse’ and take what you want.
We stopped at one shop called MischMasch. The shopkeeper soon popped in, brushing the dirt off her hands. We bought a Coke to share, some “Good luck tea” with herbs and flowers from her garden, a homemade brownie, and some local sausage from the neighbor’s farm. The calico farm cat with a chewed-up ear greeted us, hoping for a bit of sausage, no doubt. “She’s called Amy”, the shopkeeper said, and smiled, and we were on our way back onto the path into the valley, past a mountain hostel, another honesty shop, and a brewery (Schwarz Mönch).
At this point the sun was setting quickly and we still had quite a ways to go to hike down the valley into Stechelberg.
*Pro tip: If you plan on doing this hike, make sure you start early enough to allow yourself to take a thousand photos and truly enjoy the stops along the way. We found ourselves in a steep forest path to the valley town of Stechelberg completely in the dark, guiding our way past waterfalls and mountain switchbacks with only the light from my iPhone. (Low-power mode is a life-saver!)
We got lucky and were able to catch the bus back to Lauterbrunnen without incident, and lived to tell the tale, laughing over a beer in our Chalet back in Wengen and reveling in the beauty we experienced that day. Cheers!
DAY 3 – JUNGFRAUJOCH / TOP OF EUROPE
Our legs and bodies were tired and jetlagged, so when we woke up and saw the sun was shining and the sky was clear, we decided to skip hiking and make the trip up the Jungfraubahn railway up to the top of the Jungfrau mountain! There’s a research station, viewing platform, and a bunch of activities at the top of the mountain, the station called Jungfraujoch.
The name “Jungfrau”, we found out later, means “Virgin”! Mark Twain has a wonderful way of describing the fitting name and beauty of these stark peaks.
“It is a good name, Jungfrau--Virgin. Nothing could be whiter; nothing could be purer; nothing could be saintlier of aspect. At 6 yesterday evening the great intervening barrier seen through a faint bluish haze seemed made of air and substanceless, so soft and rich it was, so shimmering where the wandering lights touched it and so dim where the shadows lay. Apparently it was a dream stuff, a work of the imagination, nothing real about it. The tint was green, slightly varying shades of it, but mainly very dark. The sun was down--as far as that barrier was concerned, but not for the Jungfrau, towering into the heavens beyond the gateway. She was a roaring conflagration of blinding white.”
Old illustrations of the mountain depict a curvy young girl, lying down with her top half exposed. Her two neighboring mountains, the Eiger and Mönch, are a grumpy old man and a monk, respectively. An odd trio, if I do say so myself!
Anyway, the railway to the top of the mountain is something spectacular in itself. We paid 61 Francs round trip apiece, and that was the discounted rate because of our Jungfrau pass. And let me tell you, it was worth every penny! Matt was skeptical at first, but was quickly won over.
The train left Wengen and stopped in Kleine Scheidegg, another launching off point for some incredible hiking at higher altitudes. We had time to take a photo or two before continuing on to Jungfraujoch- the top of the mountain.
The train disappeared into a tunnel and the rest of the journey was underground, all the way up to 11,371 feet. It’s such a steep climb, Matt and I both experienced some dizziness and had to put our heads down and take deep breaths to adjust to the change in altitude. (We live at sea level, OK? Don’t judge.)
In Wengen, it was sunny and 70 degrees F. When we stepped off the train at the top of the mountain, it was closer to 35 degrees F, so if you do this trip, make sure to bring a jacket! I had my down puffer jacket, and it was perfect.
The views at the top are unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Snowy peaks and craggy cliff faces surround you, punctuated by the bright red of the Swiss flag set against a crystal blue sky.
Navigate around the tour groups and snap a photo holding the flag, with Eiger in the background! Head into Ice Caves for a magical (and cold) experience, grab a hot cocoa at the snack shop and then go up to the Sphinx- the research station at the top of an elevator, with even more incredible views from less crowded platforms. The black birds with bright yellow beaks called Alpine Choughs were a funny highlight, as they’ll follow you curiously and will eat right from your hand if you choose to feed them.
(We didn’t, but one pecked at my ring a while.)
Tie a scarf or snap a lock onto the wire fencing and soak it all in- the mountains, the glaciers, the valley below- then head back down the mountain.
That night, we decided to venture into Wengen and have a dinner in town- a tall glass of Schneider Weisse for me, and for those 'on the wagon', an amazing selection of GOOD non-alcoholic beers could be found everywhere!
DAY 4 – THE NORTH FACE TRAIL
We read about the North Face Trail on a variety of travel blogs (including Rick Steve’s) and decided to give it a shot. And were we glad we did!
This amazing hike starts from Mürren. Take the funicular up to the top of Allmendhubel (4.20 Francs pp one way with our half-fare cards). This is a sweet trailhead with a flower garden and lovely playground for children, but also the start to some amazing trails.
We followed the blue signs for the North Face trail – a wonderful Wanderweg that runs parallel to the valley, with the most awe-inspiring views of the three mountains that you’ll find anywhere. Mark Twain expresses it best in his letters about the breathtaking Jungfrau mountains:
“The stranger's first feeling, when suddenly confronted by that towering and awful apparition wrapped in its shroud of snow, is breath-taking astonishment. It is as if heaven's gates had swung open and exposed the throne.”
Continuing on this trial, you’ll pass green meadows with friendly cows, streams, and sweet chalets. You’ll climb through moss covered fairytale forests and come out on a plateau overlooking the valley and mountains that begs for you to either sing something from the Sound of Music, or just sit and stare at it for a while in silence. Here in this place, cowbells in the valley ring like Church bells, and the mountains become a Cathedral of sorts. I found it difficult to remain unchanged surrounded by such things.
Next you’ll come upon the Schiltalp farm, where the cows graze during the summer months and the keepers sell local cheese and refreshments.
Look for the large, decorative bells hanging from the eaves, and sit and chat with other hikers from all over the world. After summer is over, the cows are lead back down from the high meadows into the valley on “Alpabzug” in celebratory fashion, decorated with flower wreaths and large bells, the biggest bell saved for the cow that produced the most milk that season.
Finish the loop with a descent back into Mürren and enjoy a plate of hash browns (Rösti) with a fried egg on top at Stägerstübli restaurant, do some shopping in town at the adorable shop “Exile on Main”, and dream about ways that you can stay here forever.
DAY 5 – BURGS AND PARAGLIDING
After booking a high noon Paragliding session from Mürren, we decided to spend the morning slowly making our way there. We strolled through Lauterbrunnen, found some friendly sheep, and snapped some photos of the giant waterfall that sits as the town’s backdrop before heading on the train to meet our Paragliding pilots in Mürren. After a quick handshake intro, we followed our guides (carrying our parachute on their back!) up a steep ten-minute walk to the launch area.
“How many times a day do you do this?’” I asked my pilot, Tobi, as we neared the top. I was breathing heavily, but he just laughed. Tobi has a wide smile, tan skin and highlighted hair that sticks up in all the right places.
“Five a day right now. This is the hard part. But it’s always worth it.”
I kissed my hubby (just in case) and after a quick tutorial (no more than two minutes), we strapped into the harness, connected to the parachute, and got situated on the hill.
“Ok, on three, just start running forward, and don’t stop running until we’re over the cliff.”
If I had wanted to object, I had no time to before Tobi started the count. “One, two, three!”
And we were running, and I could feel the chute pull us back a little- then my feet were off the ground, and we were soaring over the cliff, the sheer face of the mountain far below us. It seemed as though our feet would graze the tall pines that cling impossibly to the mountain as we passed over waterfalls cutting through steep ravines and spilling to the valley below.
We glided back and forth, catching updrafts and turning steeply, dipping and soaring- the most like a bird I imagine anyone could feel like. We passed over the chalets and meadows, over farmers harvesting the hay from their fields on steep green slopes (It’s much harder than it looks, Tobi says) and passed right by the tallest waterfall in Switzerland - the Mürrenbach falls.
“Now you can steer us.” Tobi doesn’t ask as he hands me the loops, and I get a feel for the wind beneath our chute pull at my arms. “There’s your man, follow them,” He says, pointing to the parachute below us- the one my husband Matt is currently turning into a sharp dive. My heart is beating and I am smiling like a little kid as I pull with my left hand and we start to turn and dip closer to the green valley below. I steer for a while and I fight my disappointment when he takes back the controls.
“You seem like you have a strong stomach. Want to try the roller coaster?” He asks.
“Heck yeah!” I say, and he takes us into a tight spiral of a dive that has me squealing like a teenage girl that just got asked to prom. We overshoot the landing zone but find a soft grassy field full of clovers instead, and land as if we’ve just floated in like a bubble. I find myself fighting the urge to clap my hands and shout “Again! Again!” Needless to say, I’m hooked.
“So how do you become a paraglide instructor?” I ask.
We finish the day with a long, leisurely and breathtaking walk along the valley floor from Stechelberg back to Lauterbrunnen, following the milky blue glacial river and passing dozens more cows and little chalets along the way. I sip a Rivella soda (the Swiss drink that literally tastes like liquid Smarties) and we stop to chat with a few base-jumpers that we saw jump off the cliff. It’s completely legal in Switzerland, so it’s a mecca for the extreme sport.
“There’s no place like this in the world,” they say.
Back in our town that evening, high above the valley, on the high side of Wengen, we find a Wanderweg through a mossy forest that leads to the best view of the valley we’d found yet. We sit and watch the clouds come in over the mountain, illuminated by the sunset into cotton candy pink and fire orange against a misty lavender sky. We marvel at the Alpenglow of the sunlit Jungfrau peak and the waterfalls cascading towards the valley towns below. A cow moo’s and birds warble happily above the wooden paneled chalets, adorned with lace doily curtains and shutters with hearts cut out of them like gingerbread houses. A thousand shades of green soak into my eyes and I imagine all that has been here before us, and all that would come after us- all that had been inspired by this place, now passing on this inspiration to us.
For this writer, adventurer, human – this happy valley is a little slice of fantasy, an escape from the faster pace of life. It’s no wonder that literary greats found inspiration here as well- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Lord Byron, Mary Shelley, Mark Twain, and JRR Tolkien to name a few. Tolkien used this magical valley as direct inspiration for Middle Earth, Rivendell and the Misty Mountains of his famous story, "The Lord of the Rings".
As Gandalf says in Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring,
“Evil things do not come into this valley… We are sitting in a fortress. Outside it is getting dark.”
I’ll be back someday, God willing, and maybe next time with my own inspired literature to add to the list.
DAY 6/7 – HEADING HOME
We headed back to Zurich by train and checked into a hotel by the airport, had a nice dinner and a beer, and got a good night sleep before our long journey home in the morning. This was a good decision for us, as my husband had to catch up on work, and I wanted to get started editing photos, catching up on Instagram, and writing this blog post!
The next morning we said “Auf Wiedersehen” to Switzerland, bought some Swiss chocolate, and flew from Zurich to New York (about 7 hours), then from New York to Los Angeles (about 6 hours).
Now the burning question I’m sure you want answers to...
WHAT I PACKED!
September 13-19, 2019 in the Bernese Oberland, Switzerland
The weather in September can be unpredictable. Our forecast ranged from sunny and 70’s to low 50’s and rain, with temperatures in the 40’s at night. I decided to pack a little of everything to prepare for a range of conditions. (Better safe than sorry!)
*Layering is key!
**Also, our apartment had a washer and dryer, so I could pack less.
***We were doing very few things that required any sort of dressing up.
2 Tank Tops
2 Long sleeve T-Shirts
2 Thin sweaters
1 Thick, warm sweater
1 Packable down puffer coat
1 Lightweight, packable rain jacket:
2 Pairs athletic leggings
1 Pair of athletic shorts
1 Pair of jean shorts or khaki shorts
1 Pair of black jeans
1 Casual black dress and leggings
3 Pairs Wool Socks
4 Pairs regular socks
7 Pairs underwear
2 Sports bras
2 Regular bras
1 Baseball hat
1 Winter hat- beanie
Simple jewelry to dress up any outfit
1 pair Sturdy hiking boots –
(I love my Columbia boots)
1 pair Tennis shoes
1 pair Flats for dressier occasions
ELECTRONICS AND TECH
I brought my Laptop Computer, my Apple Watch, and my iPhone, along with all charging cords.
**Very important: Switzerland has a unique Electrical outlet with a higher voltage
(230V as opposed to the US’s 120V) so it’s necessary to buy a converter/adapter that can keep your electronics from getting fried.
This is the one power converter my husband found for us on Amazon. There are cheaper options I’m sure, but this had lots of ports and lots of adapters we can use for future trips! It worked great. Also, there’s a link to some Switzerland adapter/converter sets.
The weather ended up being INCREDIBLE- 70’s and sunny every day, and no rain- so I didn’t end up using the rain jacket, but I was glad I had it.
And then of course, toiletries and makeup etc. etc., I won’t bore you with that. (If you have questions on what kind of makeup/toiletries I use, just email me!)
And there you have it! I hope you enjoy your trip to the Bernese Oberland of Switzerland. Be sure to send me a postcard when you go, and give a cow a kiss for me!