What do you after you’ve just driven 1/3 around the world in a 1.0L, 3 door hatchback, followed by a 24hr, sleep deprived adventure in Seoul?
Then three days later, you hop on a plane for some R&R in Switzerland! If it was good enough for allied and axis officers during World War 2, it’s good enough me in this modern day in age…
Basically, after letting my cousin know I would be back in London on the 9 September, she told me she was going on a trip to Interlaken, Switzerland to escape from work for a long weekend and all I had to do was to book my flights to Zurich. After checking prices, the flights were still on sale so I snapped them up!
Just like Korea, Switzerland really wasn’t on my list of things to do, apart from maybe going skiing in the Alps. However, I have heard amazing things about going to Switzerland in the warmer months of the year and visiting the Alps when they’re not covered in snow. Once again, when an opportunity presents itself, you have to take advantage of it!
The only ‘condition’ of going along was that I had to do the driving. It turns out that driving from Zurich to Interlaken is a distance of only 131km! After driving 20000km in the Rally, this was a piece of cake! Fine, I told her, but only with one condition on my side… We don’t drive a Nissan Micra… 😛
Arrival into Zurich and straight to Lucerne
Everyone I have spoken to has told me that unless you’re there for business (or siphoning money out of your business), Zurich is best visited by no one… So upon arrival, it was straight to pick up the hire car and drive out to Interlaken via a lunch stop in Lucerne.
Luckily, driving to Lucerne was a quick cruise along the motorways at 130km/h with not a pothole in sight!
Arriving in Lucerne and you pretty quickly realise the significance of this relatively small town as a major train interchange- you can’t miss the railway station. You also can’t miss the main bridge that runs through the middle and the Chapel Bridge (Kapellbrücke) spanning the Reuss River, which leads to Lake Lucerne.
After an expensive lunch in town (we are in Switzerland afterall), we continued along the A-roads, climbing further into the hills. A quick roadside stop at a lake was worth it, even in the cloudy conditions just to see how clear the water was. I guess that’s the advantage of being in the mountains – you get the clean stuff whilst everyone below you gets your run off!
Interlaken and Beatenberg
As we approached Interlaken, it was obvious that the weather wasn’t clearing away anytime soon. There were plenty of low hanging clouds and a sprinkle of water here and there. Our accommodation was a house, 15 minutes drive from the Interlaken town centre at Beatenberg, overlooking Lake Thun. The views of the lake as you drive up to Beatenberg were just as good as the view from the balcony… Especially on afternoon drives back up.
Interlaken, as the name suggests, is a town between two lakes. The two lakes are the aforementioned Lake Thun to the west and Lake Brienz to the east. At the western end of Lake Thun is a town called Thun and at the eastern end of Lake Brienz is a town called, surprise surprise, Brienz. The Aare River joins these two lakes, flowing through.
The town centre is spread along a single street, connecting two the two train stations, Interlaken West and Interlaken Ost. Along the street are a whole heap of restaurants, outdoor shops, Swiss Army Knife shops, shops selling Swiss watches, icecream parlours (Movenpick anyone?) and plenty of souvenirs.
Jungfrau The Top of Europe
Arguably, the two most popular (and expensive for that matter) attractions in the region are Jungfrau, known as the “Top of Europe” as it is the highest railway station in Europe at 3454m (not necessarily the highest peak… that goes to Mont Blanc), and Piz Gloria, the revolving restaurant on top of Schilthorn. What makes Piz Gloria so famous is that is was the restaurant featured in the James Bond movie, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, starring Australia George Lazenby. The production of the movie partly funded the construction of the restaurant.
In the end, we chose to head up to Jungfrau, leaving from Grindelwald Station. The train exits Grindelwald Station, only to enter Grindelwald Grund a couple of minutes away. From here, it reverses direction (well, arguable it then moves forward) using the cog railway to head up to Kleine Scheidegg, the next major stop. From there, it also makes a stop at Eiger and then you enter the tunnels through the mountain to the top.
Two, five minute stops are made in the tunnel to various observation stations where you can peer out through plexiglass windows to see the massive glacier, Obers Ischmeer below you. Naturally however, the best view comes from the very top, where you can look out from a large, open air platform and even step onto the mountain side as well.
The complex at Jungfrau station also has an ‘ice museum’, the highest Lindt Chocolate cafe in the world and retail shops selling Tissot watches in case you wanted to buy one.
On the way down, we decided to get off at Eiger and walk down around 3.5km to Kleine Scheidegg. It just happened that the actual Jungfrau Marathon was running, so the walking track down was full of runners (and walkers) as they covered the last few kilometres to the finish line.
There, we also had our lunch (pork sausage and rosti) and caught our train back down to Grindelwald. We were in a little bit of a rush as I had only paid for 4.5hrs parking and we were hoping to not get a ticket. Even though we arrived half an hour over time, nothing was on the windscreen, though the car next to us had a parking ticket… lucky us! Tip for next time.. just pay the additional 4 francs and get up to 12 hours of parking and take your time- you can easily spend the whole day going up Jungfrau and exploring the mountains as you make your way slowly down and for the price you pay to get up (to much to state here, but you can find more information on their website) you want to make the most of your time!
After making our way back down to Grindelwald, we drove another 5 minutes to reach the canyon leading to the glacier river, coming from Jungfrau. Unfortunately, you can’t actually see the glacier as it has all but fully melted at the altitude, though you do get to walk on a platform dug in the side of the canyon wall. All in all, it takes around 30 minutes to walk in and out. If you’re struck for time, you’re not missing much if you decide to miss this attraction.
The next morning, we decided to continue driving through Beatenberg to the next town in order to catch the gondola up to Niederhorn. The weather this morning was just as good as yesterday with crystal clear blue skies as we slowly made our way up the mountain.
If you drive to the gondola station, try your luck by driving past the “park and ride” carpark, approximately 1.5km from the station and see if you can get a spot at the carpark just after it. It’s far more convenient and even on the Saturday that we visited, there was room.
The view from the top… what can I say… Spectacular. Just as good as the mobile phone reception, but then again if I had less than 5 bars reception, I would be extremely annoyed considering the size of the cellular tower there!
I should mention here that if you book and stay in accommodation in the Interlaken region, you receive a special visitors card which gives you substantial discounts at most of the attractions in the area as well as free public transport on the local buses. I guess this is to encourage people to not just make a day trip from Zurich, but to actually pump a bit more money into the local economy by staying here. After all with Switzerland being such a small country, it’s not out of the question just to drive in and out of here in a day.
Yesterday, whilst going up to Grindelwald, we all noticed a heap of paragliders soaring above us, making some of us (me) jealous that we weren’t up there as well and some of us (my dear cousin) quite horrified that they were. It seems like Niederhorn was one of the more popular mountains to launch from, as these guys were flying everywhere!
There was even a wooden ramp which, winds prevailing, would probably be a launch platform as well, however on the day we visited, most were just running down the hill, north of the gondola station and floating all the way up, around and down to Lake Thun.
There are a range of hiking, bike and scooter trails to take you down to the bottom gondola station if you choose and again, if we had more time would probably would have walked down to the intermediate gondola station. However with the afternoon settling in (you can easily spend hours at the top here admiring the landscape, especially on such a good day), we took the gondola down so we could continue our journey to St Beatus’ Caves.
St Beatus Caves
Though the caves were literally 300m as the crow flies from the Niederhorn base station, getting there meant driving all the way back down to Interlarken West, then driving along the lake to the parking area. The path from the roadside up to the entrance would certainly not look out of place in an Indiana Jones movie, with waterfalls, wooden bridges and a ‘mysterious’ temple looking structure embedded in the mountainside above it all.
The caves are named after St Beatus, whose grave is located at the entrance. According to folklore, St Beatus defeated a dragon living within the caves back (perhaps like in the Hobbit??) Whilst it is estimated that there are around 14km of passages, the walkable, artificially lit section is only 1km long and there are information signs every tens of metres of so, explaining the types of rocks and formations.
If you arrive between 9:45 and 11am, or after 3pm, you can choose to walk the caves yourself. Between 11am and 3pm however, you must join a guided tour, which run every 30 minutes and go for around 70 minutes.
To be honest, though they were interesting, I wouldn’t call them the “best thing I have ever seen” as remarked by one person exiting the caves as we were buying a tickets. Sure, there were some pretty cool areas, but the sheer scale of the stalactites and stalagmites were just tiny! I know it’s hard to tell in the photos, but they were perhaps 20-30cm long, max… Based on this, I would highly recommend walking the caves yourself (if you do decide to see them), as it didn’t take anywhere near 70 minutes to do so… Perhaps 30-40 minutes, comfortably.
The entrance setting however, is definitely a nice place to walk up to and perhaps to even have lunch at, if it’s not too busy, as you get a great view of the Lake. The day we visited was so warm and somewhat humid that would could have easily been on a tropical island.
Oh and if you do decide to head out here, make sure you pull over on the road there to grab a view of Lake Thun in all it’s clarity…
After visiting the caves, we drove back to Interlarken to catch the cable car up to Harder Kulm and to check out the ‘wildlife park’ at the base station.
Harder Kulm probably provides the best view of Interlaken and both of the lakes between which it is situated. After reaching the top, it’s a brief walk to the cafe/restaurant and viewing platform and whilst I trust Swiss structural engineering, standing on the very end of the platform was a very ‘oscillating’ experience…
The wildlife park at the base of the station to me, was probably one of the most depressing wildlife enclosures I have ever seen. Now I could be mistaken here, but unless these animals in Switzerland had evolved to the level that they were able to mix, pour and form concrete, install wire mesh fencing and acquire carpentry skills, their enclosure was anything but their natural habitat… Even though there were trees planted inside, they were fenced off! The enclosure is something I would definitely not pay for and I probably would have skipped it if it wasn’t part of the cable car ticket.
That evening, we discovered that there are a range of waterfalls in the Lauterbrunnen Valley (I later discovered that it’s also known as the Valley of 72 waterfalls…); including Trummelbach Falls which are a range of subterranean glacier falls and Staubbach Falls, which is illuminated at night. In the end, we decided to skip Trummelbach Falls and head out to Staubbach Falls after dinner.
Staubbach Falls kind of reminded me of Upper Yosemite Falls, when viewed from the Upper Yosemite Falls walking track, though not quite as tall. Nevertheless, it was still highly imposing and I’m very surprised that there wasn’t more signs or advertising to get people to see them.
The say to leave the best until last, so I will. In my opinion, for the best views of the Swiss Alps during summer (and if the weather is clear), head up to Grindelwald and take the ‘First’ gondola all the way up to the top and prepare to be amazed:
Once at the top, there are a number of hiking trails that take you all around the mountain, the most popular and easiest of them being the trail to Lake Bachalpsee, which on a calm and clear day promises a ‘mirror’ view of the imposing mountains across the valley.
Though the afternoon forecast was rain, we had our luck with the weather and were treated to the best views of the entire trip and certainly not far off from the heavily optimised promotional pictures which we saw everywhere.
With views like these, and with grass as green and as lush as they were, it’s no wonder they say that Swiss cows are the happiest in the world, at least during the warmer months. I guess they’re dry fed during winter, cooped up in some barn…
With our flight back to London departing Zurich at 7pm and our rental vehicle due back at 5pm, we grabbed a quick lunch at the restaurant located in the top gondola station (which promised the best views in the world… which was not far off). There, we took the long and slow ride down (the alternative is to zip down the first 800m via flying fox) to the carpark to begin our journey back to Zurich. Leaving Interlaken at 3pm, we returned our car at 5pm on-the-dot!
Though it seemed like we had a packed schedule over the four days (well, we did), the main objective of this trip was to get some fresh air and relax. Whilst it’s probably obvious that we breathed in plenty of fresh air, the ‘relaxing’ part is very much open to interpretation.
Compared to the hectic 9 months which have passed, this was certainly relaxing, especially with slow mornings, good food, a bed to sleep in and easy going walks. Besides, I’m not the sort of person who likes to just sit and do nothing… The only ‘negative’ about visiting the area is that your level of enjoyment will be highly weather dependent, and highly dependent on how much you’re willing to fork out.
If I were to do it again, I would skip the caves, skip the glacier lakes and even (and this is a big call), skip Jungfrau. I would spend a whole day going up both Niederhorn and First, taking my time to explore the area and if I have time, take the cog rail up to Eiger (the station before entering the tunnel going up to Jungfrau) and exploring the mountainside there as well. The rest of the time I would spend just driving around Grindelwald and the valley in which it is situated, admiring the free, natural beauty with the windows wound down.