This is a tale of Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland, and it is a tale of happiness and coincidence. First, for the coincidence. If you haven’t heard of Lauterbrunnen, I wouldn’t be surprised. It is a small Swiss town of less than 3000 occupants, probably many of whom are tourists at any given time. I’d love to say that I found this gem through careful research or through fantastic stories. But no – our love for Lauterbrunnen stemmed from the sound of its name. Sometime last fall, our friend Adam and I ran across Lauterbrunnen in our online meanderings, and it quickly became our favorite thing to say (in our thickest and most ridiculous European accents). I’m sure any of our acquaintances on campus can attest to this. Point being, in the recent planning of this trip, I once again ran across Lauterbrunnen, and can only say this: the town itself is even more fun than saying its name. And that is saying something, indeed.
After a long day of train travel from Paris (we set a new record – 7 trains in one day!), we finally crossed the border into Switzerland. As we got closer, the landscape transformed. Great hills rose out of the flat farmlands, and rocky crags leaned in above us. With a thunderstorm rolling in from behind the hills, the sight was even more impressive. As our train car tik-tik-tik’d up the hilly tracks toward Lauterbrunnen, we came around a curve and saw right below our window a vast lake of the deepest aquamarine, behind which rose huge mountains. Beautiful!
When we finally reached Lauterbrunnen, we realized that we couldn’t have found a more idyllic Swiss mountain hideaway. With only one major street (we took bets as to whether it was called ‘Main Street’ or ‘Lauterbrunnen Street’) which held four or five hotels and a single pub, Lauterbrunnen was quaint to the extreme. But the view was the part that I will probably never be able to express. The town is nestled right at the bottom of the tallest glacial valley in the world, with immense granite cliffs rising on both sides, over which cascade crashing white waterfalls. I couldn’t stop staring. If we hadn’t just left, I would probably still be staring.
I can’t express the vastness of it all. If you’ve ever been to Yosemite, it is something like that … except bigger. Oh, and the part where you’re living right in the center of it all. We could literally walk out onto our hostel’s balcony in the mornings, barefoot and pajama-ed, and look up at four or five waterfalls and these immense snowcapped mountains. It was somewhat surreal. It was so strange trying to remember that we’d been in Paris just days before. The valley was so untouched – in the mornings, you heard only the roar of the waterfalls and the river below you. The sun shone warm over the cliffs and into the valley. And at the bottom of it all, we laid in our yellow recliners, simply enjoying the peace of it all.
Had there not been so much to do and see, I doubt I would have ever left those chairs – with a book and my iPod and one of the most beautiful views I’ve ever seen, I would have happily stayed there for our entire trip. But of course, with cliffs and mountains comes excellent hiking! During the afternoon of our second day, we found a cable car that ran up to the top of the cliffs (I could NEVER remember the name of the town at the top – Googleslorp or Graleshoot or Gralpsnout or something). From there, we set out for Murren, which was another town at the top of the cliffs several miles away. We took the more strenuous of the two potential routes (the “Mountain View” trail), having been informed that it should be no big deal. We were psyched for an awesome climb, but the first forty minutes or so were … rough. It was a constant ascent. Every time you thought you had reached the top of the ridge, you’d see another huge incline rising before you! But it was so worth it. The views from that height literally made you stop and stare in awe.
The terrain changed so much as we rose through various altitudes. We passed through everything from thick forest to flat green meadows to rough scrub brush to steep hills covered in wild flowers. Unbelievable. We finally got up to a point where there was still snow lurking in the shadows, which was especially exciting given how hot we were (even wearing shorts and tank tops!). We threw a few snowballs and made a little snowman to look out over the peaks in the distance.
Further on, we found another large meadow above which rose a tall incline that was climbable. We decided to satisfy a question we’d had – how far can you throw a Frisbee off the top of a mountain? I ran and picked my way up the big incline, and went for the big huck. Man, can a Frisbee fly when it has some distance to fall!
After several hours, we ended up getting a little lost up in the mountains. Of course, we had a rough idea of where we were based on the peaks we could see (Jungfrau, Eiger, Schiltorn), but the paths get all twisty and crossed when you’re up high. In our confusion, we wound our way down through a small town (if you can call it that – there were maybe seven buildings total), and tried another path into the woods. Nick wandered off the path and into the woods a bit (bad!) but after a while, Gerst and I heard him calling to us in excitement. He had found a zipline in the woods! Turns out the path we had found was the Children’s Adventure Trail! We took turns hopping on and zipping down through the woods and out towards a frightening overview of the dropoff below. What a find!
Along the hike, every so often we would hear a melodic tinkling of bells from across the hills, especially when we neared the small towns. At one point, we rounded a curve and heard the chiming from within a stand of trees ahead. As we approached, we saw the source of this mountain music – a big group of cows! Up in the hills, it’s exactly like the Sound of Music. All the cows and sheep have big bells around their necks, and when they move, it sends a tinkling melody out on the wind. I love Switzerland!
Later on in the afternoon, it started raining and we plowed on in determination. We were headed for Gimmelwald, a very small mountain town that we heard about from one of our friends in Bruges. He had been traveling for several months, and said it was the most beautiful place he had seen yet. Needless to say, we wanted to check it out. Following the signs and the rough trail markings, we eventually found our way down to Gimmelwald. At that altitude, Gimmelwald was almost totally cut off from the rest of the valley, with no road access to the towns at the base of the cliff. Like Nick said, “It’s the only town I’ve ever been to that you get to via STAIRS”. We happily descended the stairs set into a hill and into the town.
Wandering through the tiny streets, we saw a sign for fresh Alp cheese and eggs – score! The sign pointed toward a doorbell on a little house. We rang the bell, and shortly afterwards an old woman leaned out from a window three floors above, calling that she would be down in just a moment. Gerst spoke to her briefly in German as she led us across the street to her “cheese house”. This cheese house was adorable. Low ceilinged, and set on a high base right beside the street, the woman had to set up a little wooden step for us to climb into it. Inside, we had to stoop, but were treated to delicious Alp cheese that she aged inside this very house for several years. Yum!
Having reached the end of our journey, we took the cable car down from Gimmelwald back to the bottom of the valley, and began our trek back through the valley towards Lauterbrunnen. Trying to find home, we looked for familiar landmarks, and realized how strange it was that we had to keep asking ourselves, “is that OUR waterfall?” every time we came across one of the huge cascades of water. Seriously – this was a land right out of a fairytale.
Day three was rainy and colder. Little to report here – we took the rest day we had been needing. Did laundry at the local laundromat/café/bar/bookstore/adventure booking company. When you live in a town as small as Lauterbrunnen, I suppose you really try to concentrate all your activities in one building. While waiting on the laundry, Gerst and I sat out front on the cushioned patio, reading and enjoying a big rich brownie and lattes as we watched the warm rain pour over the valley. Perfection.
Our fourth day dawned sunny and warm, which was excellent, given that we had scheduled “Canyoning” for this day (which we booked at the Laundromat/café/bar/bookstore/adventure booking company). Canyoning was more or less a guided way to descend through a tall river canyon by floating through rapids, jumping off ledges, and rappelling down cliffs. Fun fun fun! After the tour van picked us up in Lauterbrunnen, we headed back to the group’s headquarters to suit up, which was probably the most difficult part of the trip. Since we’d be swimming through glacial meltwater, we had to squeeze into a very thick rubber full-body wetsuit of two layers. I think we all felt like superheroes.
Canyoning itself was a riot. Besides myself, Gerst, and Nick, there were two other group members (Pete and Katie from Minnesota) along with our two guides. The guides hopped into the river at the top of the canyon, and told us to just follow what they did, and we’d be fine. Yikes! We started out following them, laid back in the water, and let ourselves slide over the edge of a small waterfall. The water was shockingly cold, but the experience was so much fun! We continued down the canyon, clambering over large boulders, hooking our harnesses up to rappel down the higher cliffs, and sliding every which way down more waterfalls. I only got held up on the highest jump – we had to be really careful about where we jumped, and how we landed in the water so as to avoid hitting any rocks or hitting the bottom of the river. The height made my heart flutter a little, but after catching my breath, I threw myself off the ledge after everyone else into the frothing water below. Woooo!
Back in Lauterbrunnen, we chilled out for the rest of the afternoon and the evening. Exhausted from our day of canyoning, we all promptly fell asleep in the yellow recliners in the yard as we let the sun dry off the chill from the cold river waters. In the hostel kitchens, we cooked up a delicious pasta dinner, finished off with brie, swiss chocolate, and a bottle of wine, which we enjoyed outside as the sun sank behind the snowcapped mountains. As the stars came out bright in the black sky, we sat back and chatted for hours with some travelers from Canada. The perfect ending to the perfect location.
Lauterbrunnen, you will be missed!