Switzerland: Berner Oberland,Gimmelwald, Interlaken

July 30, 2009

June 25 – Train to Switzerland

Heading to Gimmelwald, our train from Paris Gare de l’Est to Interlake OST, Switzerland (via Basel SBB) was schedule for an 8:24 departure. We woke up really tired because of lack of sleep (didn’t get back to hotel until midnight). We showered, finished packing and went down the restaurant for breakfast buffet. We stuffed as much as we could down our throats in 15 minutes before catching a metro to the train station. Arriving at the station a bit early gave us time to rest. We got on a TGV train and found ourselves sitting cross a young American couple. Don’t remember if I have already mentioned this, but throughout the entire trip we saw, heard and ran into Americans everywhere. Recession? What recession? Right? I would say a lot of them were exchange students and family with kids. Anyway, we were so glad that our seats faced the direction that the train was heading. We absolute hate facing the opposite direction.

The train was almost full but the ride was smooth and comfortable. We changed trains at Basel SBB and only had to wait a few minutes before the next train took off to Interlaken. The train arrived at Interlaken OST at around 14:00. Interlaken is the gateway to the Berner Oberland. We spent a few minutes getting our tickets to Gimmelwald as well as the ones that would get us to Italy. Since we ate so much for breakfast, 14:00 was just the right time for lunch. We lunched at a food court in a supermarket called COOP because we didn’t want to put our bags in lockers (about €5 per locker, which is still way cheaper than £8 per bag at the bag-check facility in St Pancras station in England). COOP is similar to Safeway or Giant in the USA. The food at the food court is like Ikea food. They look so good in the photos but taste the opposite. I’ll just leave it as that.

Interlaken OST the gateway to Berner Oberland

COOP supermarket and restaurant at Interlaken OST train station

Signs at Lauterbrunnen

Before getting on another train to our destination, we bought some drinks and food from the supermarket because they were a lot cheaper than getting from regular stores or restaurants. For instance, as far as I remember, a bottle of water was 2-3 CHF (Swiss francs. 1 CHF ~ $1) and a bottle of Coke was 3.50+ CHF. COOP sold one for about 0.60 CHF. Anyway, to get to Gimmelwald from Interlaken OST, we had to take a local train to Lauterbrunnen, then walk to a bus stop, take a bus to Stechelberg, and then take a cable car to Gimmelwald. The whole shabang took about an hour.

Gimmelwald Cable Car Station

As soon as we got off the cable car at Gimmelwald station, we were greeted by this calm, relaxing, sleepy feeling. I think we juset felt in love with the village and its surroundings at first sight. We walked uphill a little and literally the third house on the right was Esther’s Guest House where we stayed for two nights. Esther was there expecting our arrival. She gave us room #5 with a private bathroom. However, the bathroom wasn’t in the bed room; it was down the hallway. So we got two keys and were told to lock the bathroom after every use. The room seemed smaller than it looked on her website. Nevertheless, it was really cozy and big enough for both of us. It had a roof window that we could stick our heads out and look around.

Heavenly Cable Car Stop at Gimmerwald

Esther's Guest House

Room Number 5 at Esther's Guest House

That afternoon we just passed out for a few hours after traveling all day and woke up in time for dinner at Mountain Hostel, which was a 30 second walk from Esther’s. Mountain Hostel is the ultimate backpacker’s hostel in the area. Most of the people we saw there were American and Canadian. How to spot Canadians? One simple way; almost 100% of them will have Canadian flags on their packs. It’s their way for showing patriotism and saying “We are not Americans”. Anyway, we met this guy from Colorado and we talked for a bit. He was traveling alone as his wife wasn’t into this kind of things. He mentioned that he kept coming back to Gimmelwald every now and then because of his love for its surroundings and atmosphere. Later on in the trip, we met another couple from LA and they mentioned they once stayed at Mountain Hostel 20/30 years ago when there wasn’t even hot water yet. Now there is an Internet-connected computer, free WiFi connection, and, of course, hot water.

The Famous Mountain Hostel in Gimmerwald


June 26 – Gimmelwald, Mürren, Schilthorn

On the previous day, I asked around what the best strategy would be to get up to Schilthorn considering that the stormy weather we were going to be having for the next few days. Everybody we talked to recommended the same thing; wake up early and if you see a tiny bit of blue skies, just go. So I took their advice, woke up at 7:00 and felt so refreshed as we went to bed at around 22:00 instead of 02:00 like we did on the previous days.

Woke my wife up, got dressed and took a cable car up to Schilthorn via Mürren and Birg. We got combo tickets, which included breakfast at Schilthorn Piz Gloria and round trip tickets for 85 CHF per person. Some people actually buy one-way tickets to the top and hike 5000 ft down to Gimmelwald. In any case, the ride took about 30 minutes and while we were in the cable car, it was so foggy and started snowing/raining. So we didn’t get to see much of the scenery. The only thing that was cool was a bunch of goats climbing the mountain.

Breathtaking Swiss Alps

Piz Gloria at Schilthorn

One thing I haven’t mentioned is that for this trip we decided to test our luck by only packing rain jackets and long sleeves base layers. We figured that it’d been sunny the temperature would have been in the 50s at the top and 70s in Gimmelwald. Bad idea, I’ll tell you. The next time I go to the Swiss Alps in the summer, at least a fleece is going with me. Schilthorn 8:30 in the morning in June wasn’t very warm. In fact, it was hovering around 30-34 °F and all we had on was a couple layers of t-shirts, base layer and rain jacket. Since the weather was awful at the time, we decided to enjoy breakfast buffet in the revolving restaurant.

I hate to complain, but the food (scrambled eggs, sausage, bacon, etc.) there was terrible. It was like leftovers cooked by little kids. Anyhow, we sat there for two hours waiting for the weather to calm down and clouds to clear out but they never did. So we left the restaurant and walked around the cable car station looking at souvenirs and stuff for a while. Suddenly out of nowhere, we started to see tiny bits of blue skies so we decided to go out on one of the trails. After on 5 minutes on the trail, there was some sunshine and the cloud and fog had cleared out. We were able to enjoy the scenery from the top for about 10 minutes before another big cloud came in with rain. As the Rick Steves and the locals say, it’s impossible to predict the weather condition in the mountains way ahead of time. The best you can do is to spend more days in the area or just wing it and hope for the best. In our case, no matter how crappy the weather was we still enjoyed it very much.

Not so perfect summer condition at Schilthorn peak

View of Piz Gloria with improving condition ahead at Schilthorn peak

We headed down from Schilthorn to Mürren for lunch and some hiking in the afternoon. We stopped by a COOP and grabbed some sandwiches, drinks and strawberries. Before heading to Allmendhubel, which was 650 ft uphill from Mürren, we probably spent an hour walking to different trails because we kind of got lost. Anyway, originally we planned to have our lunch when we got to the destination, but just after 15 minutes of hiking my wife got really tired and demanded her lunch right away. Luckily, there was a hut with a little bench on the side of the trail where we could sit and eat.

After we finished forcing hard sandwiches and warm strawberries down our throats, we continued our journey by taking an off-trail path (shortcut?). It took us another 75-90 minutes before we reached Allmendhubel. There wasn’t much there apart from a playground, restaurant and funicular station. We sat there, ate more food, and just enjoyed the nature. Hiking down was so much simpler since we took the properly paved trail. The view from the trail was breathtaking and finally saw some Swiss cows that we thought we might never see on our trip. Once we had reached Mürren, we took a cable car back to Gimmelwald.

We hiked around Gimmelwald a little before having a pizza at Mountain Hostel. I’ve got to admin that they make pretty good pizzas. That night we went to bed early again because of Esther’s 9:30 check-out policy.

Signs along hiking trails

Suburb of Mürren

Cows chilling along hiking trails in Mürren

Hiking trail looking like a path to heaven

Close-up shot with Cow friend

Another animal friend you'll find in Gimmerwald

June 27 – Interlaken, Spiez, Train to Italy

Woke up early, checked out at 9:30, paid 240 CHF (ouch..!) for two nights. Oh, I forgot to mention that Esther’s place had a public Internet-ready computer and free WiFi. Every room gets 15 minutes of free Internet per day on the computer. After that you will need to pay (forgot the rate). I was able to connect my iPhone to the free WiFi to check e-mails, catch up with things, and read Federer’s interview where I found out about Michael Jackson’s death from one of the questions asked by a reporter.

After we’d checked out, we took a cable car back down to Stechelberg, then a bus to Lauterbrunnen, a train to Interlaken OST, and another train to Interlaken West. We put our bags in a huge locker so that we could spend the afternoon walking around and hiking easily. Because we didn’t buy a map of Interlaken, we were initially lost. I know… how can you get lost in Interlaken right? Anyway, we found Unterseen, which is a district in Interlaken. There wasn’t much there so we made an educated guess and walked along the canal that cut through the town in the hope that we would end up at either Thun or Brienz lake. After over an hour, we found Thun lake and it was huge. We just chilled by the lake before walking back to the train station in the rain.

Leaving Lauterbrunnen area

Once we got back to the station, we took a walk in one of the directions that we never did and finally found the town center. There were a bunch souvenir shops, Mickey D’s, watch dealers, casino, hotels and Hooters. Yes, there is a Hooters in Interlaken. Who would have thought?! Apart from those mentioned, a few museums, and Metro-Bar on the 18th floor of the ugliest building in town, there wasn’t much to Interlaken. Before we left Interlaken for Spiez, we grabbed a quick bite to eat at Interlaken’s flagship Mickey D’s restaurant. A chicken burger, fries, a large Coke (looked like a small in the US), and six chicken wings (nice!) cost me about 20 CHF. That’s almost $19. Insane! I also tried to the free WiFi but it required registration with a valid Swiss cell phone number.

Downtown Interlaken

Bus stop in residential area in Interlaken

After finishing every piece of the fries, we took a train to Spiez. Spiez is a neat town and located at the south bank of Thun lake. We didn’t put our bags in a locker this time because we literally had no more Swiss money left and didn’t want cash out from an ATM because in just a few hours we wouldn’t be needing anymore CHF. Having said that, we lugged our bags downhill, walked around a bit, and came back to wait for our night train.

At night the station was a bit frightening because there were a bunch of wannabe gangstas around the station. Not only they were around, they were running, cycling around half drunk with scissors. This kind of shocked me because in my perception there wasn’t anything like this for Switzerland, let alone Spiez. I was really hoping that it was a rare exception. Anyway, as soon as our train arrived we got on and made our way to the assigned compartment. Since our tickets were for a 4-couchette compartment, we were daydreaming that there wouldn’t be any roommates. And as expected, our wish didn’t come true. There were two (Guess what?) Americans sleeping on the lower beds. We quickly climbed up to our beds and tried not to disturb them. Just before I lay down on the bed, the car attendant stopped by and asked for our tickets and passports. I was a bit skeptical about handing over my passports but I guessed it was ok since Rick mentions it in his books.

It took a while for me to fall asleep because 1) the train was going through a mountainous area so it was maneuvering left and right, which gave me motion sickness 2) I was woken up a few times just before getting in the zone by people in neighboring compartments arguing with the car attendant (?) in Italian.

At Spiez train station waiting for overnight train to Florence/Firenze, Italy