The best bus ride ever and road-blocking cows

18 Sep

18 September 2021.

Just another day in Switzerland.

After a thrilling bus ride (yes, a thrilling BUS ride!) we arrived at 5905 feet above sea level only to be held hostage for 5 minutes by a herd of very large Swiss cows who decided the big yellow bus did not need to keep to schedule. 

Thus began our day of discovery, hiking above Grindelwald in the Berner Oberland. 

If the Swiss don’t build a gondola to it, they will build a road as seemingly no place is inaccessible in this amazing country. We boarded a Grindelwald bus in the eponymous village and in minutes we were careening along a single lane mountain road, always up, past cows and waterfalls and Swiss farm buildings, our capable driver Francesca blasting the very loud four-note horn at curves to warn oncoming cars of our approach. Those with acrophobia need not apply. This was a ride that demanded the riders’ attention. There were no noses in screens for the riveting 30-minute ascent.

Then came the cows. BIG cows. Blocking the narrow road near the top. One nudged up against the bus and peered in the window, seemingly unable to squeeze past between bus and embankment. Francesca opened the doors. An attempt to scare them or to welcome them on board? Finally a farmer came along and encouraged them to mosey along. I wonder how often they play this game. If you suffer from Bovinophobia this is not the place for you.

At last at the top, the bus disgorged us. The four other passengers headed up the mountain to a restaurant at 8100 feet, a three-hour climb we were told. Ugh. Not easy-hiker stuff. We cast about looking for our hike, the path to Bort, where we would take a gondola back to the valley. One tiny sign pointed over an electric fence down a steep hill with no visible path. Not a great start. 

The big yellow Grindelwald Bus serves mountain residents and hikers.

Undaunted, we instead followed the road the bus had used — thankfully the cows had dispersed — and found a faint trail through a meadow that ultimately resulted in a hike we now count among our favorites. This one will be going in the 2022 edition of “Walking in Switzerland’s Berner Oberland.”

At 4 miles, taking two-hours, the trail is gently descending with some up-and-down undulation, a couple of points where one can shorten the hike by taking a bus, or the potential to lengthen the trek. This hike offers amazing vistas, a charming mountain café as a rest stop, and easy footing. A trifecta for us! As a bonus, we saw only five other people and two dogs on the entire hike and we were back in the valley in time for lunch. 

May have to try one of the other Grindelwald bus routes next week!

Click on any photo for a better view and a slide show.

Another valley to discover in the Berner Oberland

12 Sep

12 September 2021.

One valley over from Lauterbrunnen, directly south from Spiez, we found craggy mountains, alpine lakes, and fewer visitors. This is the Kandertal.  Hearing North American accented English was rare, at least during our visit. Unlike in the Jungfrau Region, we found some locals who do not speak English at all, causing me to resurrect my pitiful German last studied some 48 years ago.

Kandersteg features several large, classic hotels, many outdoor dining terraces, and abundant mountain trails.

I’ve had Kandersteg on my list of places to check out for a few years. However, no matter how many times we go to Lauterbrunnen, it is hard to tear ourselves away from time in the Jungfrau Region on a normal 10-to-14-day trip. This year we set up Base Camp Barton for a month in Lauterbrunnen so we could work in some other exploration, including a 3-night side trip to Kandersteg.

The train trip from Spiez is lovely, rising up through the valley on a cleverly engineered railway. Normally when one passes from Spiez in the Berner Oberland to Domodossola in Italy, the travel is through the Lötschberg Base Tunnel. But this is on the old (early 20th Century) Lötschberg Line. I get quite a railfan education when traveling with my ferroequinologist husband. 

Oeschinensee with requisite lakeside restaurant, a rocky beach, sheer cliffs on the far side, and cows, of course.

We are here for hiking and made the obligatory trek to the Oeschinensee, an easy-to-reach alpine lake that attracts many if only to take lunch by the lakeside. Hardy souls can work off lunch with rugged high terrain hikes or, like us, one can walk to-and-from the lake in about an hour on wide paths. Going uphill on the way back was a bit of a workout (which we needed) but there is also an electric shuttle bus option which we thought quite nice as a way to make the lake accessible to all.

We stayed at the charming family-run Blümisalp Hotel and Restaurant in Kandersteg. The husband is a Certified Swiss Federal Master Chef who turns out simple fare, well-prepared and beautifully presented. It is quite nice to come back from hiking and not have to think about going out so we indulged in their restaurant twice for prix fixe meals. The rooms are neat and quiet, service is efficient and friendly. We’d stay there again in a heartbeat.

Our second hike, a further education in mountain railways, was a trek along the Lötschberger Nordrampe which runs for about 20 kilometers from Frutigen to Eggeschwand. We are not 20km/day walkers so we were delighted that one can take the trail in bites. We chose to walk from Kandersteg to the charming Blausee, about 3.6 miles. Here we got an appreciation for the clever “crazy-eight” (my words) tunnel required to bring the trains up the steep valley. On our 90 minute walk we saw two farmers, dozens of cows, a few passing trains, and no other people until we arrived at Blausee. Of course, there is a hotel and restaurant there, in true European fashion. We also got to enter the Blausee Nature Park through the back door from the trail and did not have to pay to enter like those who drive there do.

Below, a few scenes from our Lötschberger Nordrampe hike to the Blausee. It was overcast and rained the minute we arrived at the Blausee and were safely undercover drinking coffee. The Blausee is so clear you can see tree trunks submerged in 12 meters of water.

It is clearly cow parade season as a herd of about 15 sauntered past our terrace on Saturday, stopping all traffic through Kandersteg on a fine sunny morning. An hour later, while taking the bus to the end of the valley to start our hike for the day, the bus had to stop for three dozen cows to pass. This was not the driver’s first parade. She immediately exited the bus and shooed the cows away protecting her vehicle! 

Cow Parade in Kandersteg.

Our final hike in the Kandertal was at Sunnbüel, up above the southern end of the valley. The lower slopes were still encased in shadows when we ascended at 10:00, but on top, at 6352 feet, the sun was brilliant and the path beckoned. The hike I chose was a lollipop to Arvenseeli, a series of three pristine alpine lakes. Except, this late in the season they were dry, rocky beds surrounded by cows nibbling on sparse alpine plants. (I think these were the cows that missed the trek to town this morning as elsewhere on the trail there were fresh indicators of recent cow passage and lots of hoof prints.) While this was advertised as easy and a family hike, there was a sketchy portion of more than 20 minutes featuring narrow trails that sometimes disappeared, difficult footing, and the aforementioned cows sometimes blocking the way as if daring one to pass. The advertised 90 minute hike took us two hours and 8 minutes. Still it was a good workout followed by a welcome lunch with a Panaché (half beer, half lemon soda) and accommodating server who spoke no English but put up with my stilted German. 

Below, scenes from the Sunnbüel area, the Arvenseeli Loop. Note the cow standing in a dry, rocky lakebed.

Now that we’ve been to the Kandertal, we see other possibilities for exploring. We learned of the Gasterntal a river valley near Kandersteg that is quite remote and only seasonally accessible. We may have to come back.

Who doesn’t love a parade?

4 Sep

4 September 2021.

Saturday morning and we were slow to start. Although I was up at 5:00 AM, the planned 08:40 departure came too fast. Lucky for us. Perhaps the universe was smiling on us.

We hit the trail from Grütschalp to Mürren, one of our favorite hikes. It’s easy and scenic. As we are in Switzerland earlier than we have ever been prior, we had hopes of seeing more cows in the high meadows, and maybe some cheese-making in progress. Also, since it is still summery, the wildflowers are still showing off and the grass is thick and abundant.

About the halfway point in our walk, I looked up to see this old girl emerging from her barn. Five minutes earlier we’d have missed it.

A man nearby asked his wife, “Do they do that every day for the walkers or is this something special?”

It is, indeed, special: The transhumance, or more whimsically, a Cow Parade. Each farm, or alp has to bring its animals from alpine meadows to valley quarters for the winter. It seems very early to start this (we saw parades in late September two years ago), but we were treated to the spectical today.

The cows surely know what is happening. Some are bedecked with flowery headgear, most wear the giant bells associated with the ascent in summer and descent in autumn. Giant, heavy, clanging bells. No cows shall be lost.

There was a lot of swirling, some recalcitrance, several of the girls loading up from the water trough before the forced march descending about 2500 feet. It seemed to me that several were reluctant to leave the alpine landscape. Perhaps they were dreading winter in the barn.

Glaciers and butterflies

31 Aug

1 September 2021.

So many tiny jewels in the high alpine area! Iridescent purple, bright orange, shiny black, brilliant white, delicate yellow, too small to capture with a point-and-shoot camera. Wildflowers persist even in late August above 6000 feet and the butterflies are playing amongst them doing their pollination magic. Even where there is little more than lichen clinging to rocks, minuscule blossoms persist at temps that makes us think October has arrived. 

The view from Spielboden, above Saas-Fee, altitude 8031 feet above sea level.

We took a hike we would not have taken had we known the reality. The online info said “Good for families! Tame marmots! Easy!” We queried the woman at the TI. “No, it’s not hard.” Maybe not for her but for a couple of flatlanders of a certain age group it was way beyond the usual easy-hiker style. In our book we rate hikes 1 to 3 and a “3” is not terribly difficult, just a little rocky, perhaps, longer with some extended uphill segments. Given our usual rating system, the hike we took to Spielboden was a 6!

We would have turned around part way up — where we had a delightful stop for coffee at a mountain restaurant — but we dreaded the impact a descent would have on our knees and hips so we persevered to reach the comfort of a ride down in a gondola. 

Below, scenes from our rest stop at Gletschergrotte.

We climbed 2200 feet according to Ric’s altimeter, encountered uncountable switchbacks, rocky footing, steep drop offs from narrow paths, and the supposed two-hour hike took us three. Boy were we proud of ourselves! And the marmots? They are in the last five minutes at the top of the trail. 

Fat marmot by the side of the trail. We didn’t bring any carrots or nuts.

Luckily, in typical European tradition, there was a restaurant at the top with great food and a perfect view to glaciers and many of the 4000 meter peaks that surround the Saas Valley. The butterflies, glaciers, and a fat marmot made up for the strenuous climb. 

Eye-level with the glacier.

We had hoped to find some easy hiker options in the Saas Valley, perhaps expand our Berner Oberland hiking book, but we only found one option in the past few days. It’s a lovely valley but it doesn’t offer the myriad options of the greater Jungfrau Region in the Berner Oberland. But the research  is fun!

A few more photos from our time in the Saas Valley.

Pizza Italia!
Sunday lunch starts with a beer.
Swiss restaurants have a check-in system to facilitate contact tracing.
Flower bedecked entrance, Saas-Almagell.
Swiss fixer-upper.
Cheers!

Hey Europe! We’re Back!

25 Aug

25 August 2021.

Pre-trip excitement was laced with anxiety as our departure approached. Ever-changing flights, rising COVID-19 cases, and shifting entry restrictions made the last few weeks agonizing. Would our flight leave? Would it change again? Would the countries allow us in without quarantining? Did I fill out all the right forms? 

What used to be a simple trip — showing up for the flight and flashing a passport at immigration control — has transformed into a game of “Who’s on First?” Flying into London without quarantine would require a pre-trip negative test, but Italy would require quarantine if we so much as passed airside at Heathrow, unless we had 14 days in a “safer” country before entering. Switzerland was fine with our stopping at Heathrow, but it would require three flights over 24 hours to get from PDX to Geneva. Three hops is, from prior experience, exhausting. Not interested. 

We settled on flying from Seattle to Frankfurt and spending a night before taking a train to Switzerland. Easy. Ha! One week before we were to fly, Germany declared the US a high risk country. Luckily, for the duly vaccinated, all we had to do was register our US vaccination status in a German government website which then spewed out a QR code and no quarantine was required. 

The Swiss also have a well-defined system for getting a so-called COVID Pass (also called a Green Pass or Pass Sanitaire or COVID Passport depending on the country) in the form of a QR code on our phones. We were able to apply to the Cantonal authority in Valais prior to travel, uploading our vaccination proof. In 48 hours we had our QR codes that are necessary for entering some stores and restaurants throughout the country. It is my understanding that the Swiss-issued QR code is valid throughout the European Union so may be usable in Italy and France as well. We shall see about that in the weeks to come.

Even immigration officers are confused. We flew into Frankfurt non-stop from Seattle and immigration scoffed at the Einreiseanmeldung forms we flashed with our passports. “You don’t need those. The US is not a risk country,” he said. Not to be argumentative with an immigration official, I joked that indeed the US was very dangerous and Germany has required these since August 15. One of his colleagues backed me up. After our passports were scanned and the officer was contemplating giving me the stamp while her cohort scanned Ric’s, I tried out my ancient and rusty university German, querying “All ist gut?” The immigration official who had scoffed at our forms replied, “All ist gut. You are not the criminals we are looking for.” Who knew German immigration had a sense of humor?

The flight from Seattle on Condor was only 20% full, much to our surprise. I have been tracking this flight for weeks to see if it was ever cancelled and it was not. There must be a lot of cargo business to allow a 767 to fly that route daily with so few passengers. Likewise, our train from Frankfurt to Bern was not full. The Hauptbahnhof was not as busy as we would expect on a business day at 0800, although I have read that Germany is thriving and people are working. Like in the US, WFH must be keeping the office workers cooped up. 

And so it begins. We will spend all of September in Switzerland, primarily in our home-away-from-home in Lauterbrunnen. We rent the same apartment every trip from a lovely British family (thanks James & Michelle!). We are so at home there we even store a Nespresso machine in their lockup. With a base camp established, we’ll take some overnight side trips to Kandersteg and Bettmeralp, and we will update our book, “Walking in Switzerland’s Berner Oberland” which was published just as COVID-19 started spreading in early 2020.

From Lauterbrunnen we can enter Italy without quarantine, unless something changes. The end of September we will go to our beloved Ortisei and the Alpe di Siusi. Inshallah we will also visit Paris and wrap up our trip with two weeks in England. Coming home just in time for Halloween.

We start, however, in the Saas Valley of Switzerland, a new-to-us and lesser-known area one valley over from Zermatt and the Matterhorn. Below, a few pictures from our first evening in Saas-Grund. We have never been in Switzerland this early in the summer. We usually arrive in mid-September. Thus the late summer gardens are flourishing (no drought here) and the evenings are milder. Outdoor dining is pleasant.

Stay tuned for updates!

Creative use for old hikers.
Whimsy in the garden. The Swiss are avid gardeners and each property is tidy and colorful.
The old buildings are preserved and used, creating texture and a sense of history.

Aufwiedersehen!

%d bloggers like this: