Our drive from Riemst, Belgium, to Stechelberg, Switzerland, would have been about 7 hours long. We instead broke it up by spending Friday night in Saarbrucken, Germany. Our hotel there was kinda funky: a two-floor room, with curvy stairs and a rope bannister, and three hanging lights shaped like globes, clustered together at differing heights. It had a very '70s feel to it. But, it was comfortable, inexpensive, and a place to sleep.
On Saturday, we continued our drive through Germany, France, and Switzerland. Switzerland was the only country we had never been to. We loved it! The Swiss are really funny about their tunnels; they love them! I lost count of how many tunnels we drove through once we crossed the border. Some were short, only a couple hundred meters. Some were long, over two kilometers. One looked like it only saved about a half kilometer of driving by going through a mountain crag instead of around it (at least that's what it looked like on the GPS). Heck, I guess if you can build a tunnel, then why not! =)
Anyways, our drive took us into the Berner Oberland region of Switzerland, known to be one of the prettiest areas in all of Europe. We soon saw why! As one tour guide website put it: "There are times when the reality of Switzerland puts postcard idealization to shame, surpassing advertising-image peaks and skies. Those times happen most often in the Berner Oberland, for this rugged region concentrates some of the best features of rural Switzerland: awesome mountain panoramas, massive glaciers, crystalline lakes, gorges and waterfalls, chic ski resorts, dense pine forests, and charming gingerbread chalets." (http://www.fodors.com/world/europe/switzerland/berner-oberland/). We drove through beautiful valleys filled with pastures of grazing, bell-wearing cows, past pristine Alpine lakes, under monstrous and intimidating mountain peaks. One of the highlights of this drive was driving past the Thunersee, one of the two lakes that Interlaken sits between (inter--between, laken--lakes). It was so still, so blue, with beautiful resort towns and boat docks scattered along the shore and grand peaks reflecting back from above. Oh, just swoon!
When we reached Interlaken, we turned right, missing any views of the Brienzersee =( However, this path took us into the valley of the Jungfrau region, which was our destination. To be honest, we were a little anxious. The clouds were very low, obscuring our views of the famous Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau, and they were dropping rain on us pretty good. Was our whole weekend going to be a wet, obscured, mountain-peak-less stay? Regardless, the views directly ahead of us, despite the rain, were quite impressive. The towns are populated with the most quaint half-timbered houses, with flowers spilling out over the balconies. The valley floor was covered with a lush carpet of green grass, which was cut right down the middle by a very different kind of stream. I'll tell you more about it later.
Anyways, where was I? Driving in the valley, ok. Valley floor, beautiful. Now, the rock walls climbing almost straight up on either side of us? Those were impressive, and utterly dreamy, disappearing into the clouds, with rushing waterfalls flowing down in long, thin, fast-moving streams (helped along by the rain, of course =). Truly, the views from the valley floor were remarkable; we had no idea what beauty was in store for us once we got up the mountain. The pictures below are nice to look at, though no photographic image can convey the majesty and surreality of driving below the Jungfrau, even though she was mostly hidden from our sight at the time!
|No, those are not spots on my camera lens. That is just now the clouds hung: little puffs of white here and there below the actual overcast sky.|
We parked our car in the small town of Stechelberg, though we were staying at Esther's Guesthouse in Gimmelwald. Gimmelwald, however, is inaccessible via private vehicle (unless you're one of the hundred or so residents). The only way up is on the Schilthornbahn, a cable car that starts at the valley floor and stops in Gimmelwald, Mürren, Birg, and the Schilthorn. So, we packed up everything we would need for the weekend -- raincoats, winter coats, luggage.... kids =) -- and took our first trip in the cable car, a way of transportation that we would get to know quite well during our weekend. The cable up to Gimmelwald looked so steep! I don't know how they made the whole thing work; lots of engines and pulleys, I'm sure. The views looking down into the valley were breathtaking. Just looking out the window alongside one of the waterfalls -- hearing that waterfall -- indescribable! The kids enjoyed the ride, too!
In Gimmelwald, the first thing you see upon leaving the cable car station is this play set, ideally placed to keep our kids periodically entertained as we drug them along on our adventures. And, Esther's Guesthouse is only a couple hundred meters past the swing, a quick two-minute walk from the cable car station.
We were given a room in the top floor of the house. It was small (though not the smallest hotel room we've stayed in!). We had to duck a lot. But it was clean, very nice, had its own bathroom, and the views out the windows were pretty spectacular! They even had Swiss chocolates sitting on the nightstand for us =)
Now, we've never been the kind to let a little rain stop us. With some time to kill before dinner, we decided to bundle up and go for a walk, to see what this little town had to offer. If you know Zach, you would also know that once he sees an umbrella, he instantly fixates on it, claims it as his, and won't let it go for quite a long time. So, we couldn't get this one away from him, and he wanted to use it so bad. It was most entertaining to watch this cute little boy struggle to keep his way-too-big umbrella over his head and out from under his feet.
|This was the Pension Hotel. We didn't get a chance to eat here, but it was right next door and kind of cute, with a cool little oddity about it: The Honesty Shop.|
|Esther's Guesthouse =)|
|They really were adorable with their umbrellas!|
|Just walking down the street. Beautiful!|
Rick Steves and our hotel both suggested we stop by a little family house and get some goodies: Swiss cheese, eggs, milk, etc. All locally sourced and made. So, we did! It was a little intimidating. We just walked up to this person's home and knocked on her door. She looked out at us from a second floor window. We asked if she spoke English ("A little bit," she said, just like on the show). And she let us in. Instantly, we were hit with the smell of aging cheese. We walked through her mudroom into the cheese room and bought for ourselves a wedge each of 2011 and 2012 Alpine Swiss Cheese. Yummy!!!
|I loved these little hollowed-out log troughs!|
|Finally, little Zach was rescued from fighting with his umbrella!|
|Tell me this isn't pretty, I dare you!|
|The fire house -- how cute!|
|Coming around the end of our loop, with the school on the left, and Esther's Guesthouse on the right.|
|Waterfalls. What more can I say? =)|
We started seeing some blue sky, just as we were heading in from the rain for some dinner =) Our place mats had an illustration (below) of the local mountains. A young couple sitting next to us and ourselves kept trying to figure out from this picture which peaks we were actually seeing. Neither of us could put two and two together =) Thankfully, dinner arrived, and we had a delicious diversion to our attention.
After dinner, we walked around a little more, enjoying the sun that had finally emerged from the cloudy sky. Maybe our weekend wouldn't be so bleak, after all. =)
After a comfortable night in our loft hotel room, we woke up, hoping for a less-sloppy day. One of the first things Adam does is direct my attention to one of the skylights in our room. The day before, all we saw out of them was white-gray from the clouds overhead. This morning was a different sight! There, staring down at us, was the Jungfrau! No wonder we couldn't match up the real peaks with the illustration. Even with the clouds somewhat lifted the evening before, we hadn't truly been able to see the tallest of the peaks. Well, there she was now! How beautiful! We had been discussing which to do first, go up to the Schilthorn or see the falls, and this made our decision. We knew the clouds wouldn't stay at bay for very long, so we hustled through breakfast and scurried up the mountain, even as the ticket seller at the cable car station warned against a cloudy visit at the top at that time. Glad we didn't listen to her!
|Riding the cable cars up to the top. Snow, glaciers, lakes, rocks, clouds. So amazing!|
|Hello! That's the other cable car on the way back =)|
|What a cool little lake hidden high up in the mountains, inaccessible unless you're heli-jumping down with skis on!|
I really have no words to describe what it was like up on the Schilthorn. It was cold; our winter coats were very welcome, as were hats and gloves. But, we weren't uncomfortable. I think it was 1*C at the top. We chose to check out the panorama deck first before heading inside. Please, tell me, how do you describe being on top of the world? Looking out over immense mountain peaks in all 360 degrees? Floating above the clouds? All amidst the stillness of a winter wonderland covered with snow? I don't know how many times I exclaimed, out loud and under my breath, "Oh, my God! Oh, my God. Oh-my-God! This is beautiful! So Amazing! Gorgeous! Unbelievable!" Truly, this place was God's work. I couldn't stop smiling, couldn't stop taking pictures, couldn't help but feel so miniscule in such a grand setting. We walked around the deck several times, taking it all in. There were a few clouds, but they only added to the ambiance. A couple from Montana took our picture once. We found glaciers in this direction, lakes over that way. It was everything we had imagined it would be, and so very much more!
|Look how deep the snow was -- In September!|
|Yes, we were there!|
See these next two pictures? The Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau are playing peek-a-boo in the clouds!
Well, Zachary, our little scientist, was getting bored on his dad's shoulder while we were comparing the real mountains to the illustration. So, he wanted to see what would happen if he chucked his water bottle over the edge. Well, guess what? It really does fall in the snow. And it really did just stay there, forever, because, even though it was only about 10 feet away, there was no way we could get it!! =)
|Ooh, a glacier!|
|Views inside the 007 Restaurant - Piz Gloria, sitting on top of the Schilthorn. The 1969 Bond production team actually helped fund the revolving restaurant and helipad. Check out this website for an awesome photo and better James Bond info about this super cool restaurant!!!!!|
|Ooh, the clouds lifted!|
|Our family, atop the Schildhorn, with the Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau behind us. Wow!|
We could have stayed on the Schilthorn for many more hours. We would most likely never see these Alpine panoramas again. (thank goodness for cameras, though no picture will ever capture the feeling of gazing out over the Jungfrau). We saw what we came to see, committed what we could to memory, saved the rest in our camera, and came away with another neat adventure to tell. However, we still had some exploring to do, so we climbed on the cable car again and headed back down the mountain.
|Good bye, Small Nameless Alpine Lake.|
|Best picture of these three of the day. Taken from the Birg cable car station.|
I loved the bells! Cows had bells on, goats did, too. It's just such a foreign idea to me, something we read about in story books about Europe. I'm such a tourist, and an American, at that! =) I took a few seconds video for you, so you could hear their bells, too =)
|View from the cable car. I will never forget this glacial river; it's color, speed. There was just something so special and unique about it.|
Our adventure up the Schilthorn gave us grand views of the majestic Alpine landscape. Our next adventure took us inside the mountains, to see the massive destruction of these mountains, happening from the inside, out.
Have I told you how in love I am with this water? It was nothing like the Clearwater back home. It was so cold, and moving so fast. It was very metallic tasting (yes, I felt it and tasted it! =) because of the minerals it had eroded off the mountain. Together, these characteristics made it a bubbly white, with a beautiful bluish-green hue to it. I felt it belonged in a good story, something fantastical, with knights and dragons (or, maybe I'm reading too much Game of Thrones =).
We began our exploration of the falls by riding up the small vernicular-like lift inside the mountain. It took us up to the 6th fall. We would have to hoof it up to see the 10th before working our way back down.
I honestly don't know how to describe these falls. For every way in which the views from the Schilthorn were beautiful, gorgeous, vast, and majestic, the experience in the Trummelbach Falls matched it in raw power, destruction, velocity, and volume. These falls are the only outlet for the run-off from the melting glaciers on the Mönch, Eiger, and Jungfrau. That huge amount of fast-moving water is cutting through this mountain like a butter knife. As Rick Steves put it, the Alps are rotten from the inside out. They're made of organic material that is very susceptible to water and wind erosion. While that might wreak havoc on the longevity of these mountains (in geographic terms), it sure makes for a rushing experience when you see that destruction in action. Watch this video, and turn your speakers up really loud to get a sense of what it was like near these falls. Awesome!
|Looking up through the thin gap the water has made.|
|He he, so damp! Green alge is growing on these rocks from the heat of the light and the moisture in the air =)|
|Looking down where the falls have|
already cut into the mountain.
As we were waiting for the cable car to come down so we could catch a ride up to Gimmelwald, we saw a couple of paragliders as they were approaching the valley floor for a landing. I still think that would have been a fun thing to do =) (I have a video. It was kind of neat. Blogger won't let me post it )=
Our big day in the Swiss Alps was done. We were back in Gimmelwald with a little time before dinner. So, the kids took to the playground again. What a nice little respite for them =)
We spent one more comfortable night in Gimmelwald. The sky wasn't as clear the next morning. I guess that's ok. It made leaving this little heaven a little easier. Honestly, I don't think a month at Gimmelwald would have been enough. It was so perfect: quiet, quaint, comfortable, sitting in one of the most beautiful places on Earth. Adam said that, if money weren't an issue, he could retire there. I think it left an impression on both of us!
As we left the Jungfrau valley, we followed the glacial river out, almost until we reached Interlaken. I didn't really pay it much attention on the way in. On leaving, however, I spent my time along it trying to memorize exactly what it looked like, holding on to it as long as I could. Because, leaving that river meant leaving one of our most beautiful vacation spots ever. Finally, though, the road left its banks. We turned left at Interlaken, and I snapped a few shots of the Thunersee as we began driving back home, bach through Switzerland and its tunnels, France, Germany, and finally, Belgium.