Harlan Hague


I played tennis on the day before leaving for a trip to Switzerland. I told my partners that I was going to have a glass of wine with Heidi in the shadow of the Jungfrau. They laughed.

I had always avoided long stays in Switzerland. I traveled on a tight budget before Rick Steves discovered youth hostels, and Switzerland seemed a budget-buster. I have since become a Steves disciple and decided that even Switzerland could be visited without pocketbook pain.

After months of correspondence by e-mail with faceless travelers, I decided on the Jungfrau region. I was apprehensive, however. Their enthusiasm was unnerving. It couldn't be that good.

As the train left Interlaken and headed up toward the Lauterbrunnen Valley and the Jungfrau, I braced myself mentally for a letdown.

But they were right. It was as good as they said. I soon understood why some of my correspondents go there repeatedly.

Harlan and Heidi. Honest!My wife and I stayed a couple of nights at Walter Mittler's Mittaghorn Hotel in Gimmelwald, a tiny village--where Heidi lives, says Rick Steves-- built on a sloping shelf above the valley. Here indeed I met Heidi and had a glass of wine with her, the Jungfrau looming in the background. Heidi Melander from Pleasanton, California. After dinner, I had a refreshing Heidi cocoa, hot chocolate with schnapps.

Gimmelwald is the closest one is likely to come to the stereotypical Swiss mountain village. It can be reached only by cable car from Stechelberg at the head of the Lauterbrunnen Valley, or from nearby Mürren. Except for the odd piece of farm equipment, there are no vehicles in Gimmelwald.

Leaving the rural charm of Gimmelwald, we moved up the hill by cable car to Mürren. Larger, with more hotels and a few shops, Mürren also is car-free. On a clear day, it seems that one can reach across the gorge and touch the three principal peaks in the range opposite: Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau. Our landlady told us how to remember the names and their relative locations. The ogre (Eiger) would like to get close to the young girl (Jungfrau), but the monk (Mönch) stands between them. I had coffee at an outdoor restaurants on the canyon edge and wondered whether there was any place on earth more beautiful.

Winter in the Jungfrau region is for skiing, and summer is for walking. The Swiss know how to do it. Take a cable car or cog train to a high valley, then walk on a mostly level or descending trail. Stop for coffee and the view. Trails are well-marked for the most part, signs showing directions and degree of difficulty. Caveat: "degree of difficulty" is a matter of judgment.

If you're confused, ask a passerby. On a walk to Spielboden, above Mürren, we came to a poorly-marked turning. An elderly woman was walking slowly up the path behind me. She was wearing a dress and carrying a shopping bag, obviously a local who had climbed this hill countless times.

"Spielboden?" I said, pointing up the path. My pronunciation was impeccable. She stopped and looked at me.

"Spielboden? Ja, ja," she said. She smiled, gently grasped my arm and pointed up the path, and commenced telling me all about Spielboden. She pointed at the marvelous meadow of wildflowers beside the trail and talked about that, then pointed at the belled cattle, making music as they grazed, and told me about them. At least, I assume that's what she talked about since I neither speak nor understand German.

"Ja, ja," I replied each time she paused. Then she was finished. She smiled, squeezed my arm, said "wiedersehen," and was gone. I was breathless for a moment. I understood none of her words, but we had communicated wonderfully.

Wildflowers are best in late June or early July. On both sides of the valley, we saw hillsides and meadows crowded with blossoms. If you're too late, you may see only green fields. Many are hay meadows.

The best view of the Jungfrau is at Spielboden. Stop for refreshment at the small gasthaus. Then walkCarol and Jungfrau about a hundred yards toward Jungfrau. You can't miss it. Sit on the bench beside the trail and contemplate one of the most magnificent views anywhere. Continue the walk down the hillside to the Sprutz waterfall and further on to Gimmelwald. From here, you can continue down the slope to Stechelberg at the head of the valley or return to Mürren, either by the paved  trail with a gain of about 1,000', or by cable car. We opted for the cable.

If you walk down to Stechelberg--we did on another day--stop for a rest and refreshment at a tree-shaded table at the little cafe beside the trail just as you enter the village. Continue down to the cable car station. We lined up for the Gimmelwald car, but backed off quickly when we realized that the queue was for the bungee jump. A 550' free fall, the world's highest.

We watched preparations. A voice behind me asked a portly young man being fitted with jump harness if he could have his Persian rug. "Naaaa," he replied with a grin. A bit nervously, I thought. Terrified, it turned out. He was the first to jump. He screamed all the way down the cord and continued until he was lowered to the ground. The car returned to the station with the other five would-be jumpers. We met a fellow at the hotel that evening who described his jump the previous day as "fantastic."

For a popular walk, take the train across the valley and up to Wengen. The village is larger and busier than Mürren, with more shops and more tourists. Walk to the back of the village and take the cable car up to Männlichen. Carry a warm sweater and windbreaker. The trail at the top often crosses patches of snow, even in late July. Walk down to Kleine Scheidegg, a nice lunch stop. One take-away food shop reflects the times. It serves mostly Japanese dishes, and the attendant is Japanese.

From Kleine Scheidegg, one can take the train up to Jungfraujoch for a look at the Jungfrau up close and a sweeping view below, or the train down to Wengen. Better yet, walk down to Wengen. The hillsides are blanketed with wildflowers in early July, and the views of the slopes and valley change with every turn. In Wengen, stand in front of the church for the best view of the head of the valley.

The scenic alternatives in the region are countless. For example, take the longest telecabine line in the world, four-person cabs suspended on a cable, similar to those at Disneyland, from Männlichen down to Grindelwald. Or take the cable car from Mürren to the top of the Schilthorn.

Before buying your ticket for the latter, check the television monitor in the Mürren station for a look at the peak. On a good day at the top, the view of the Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau range is magnificent. Enjoy the spectacle over coffee or lunch in Piz Gloria, the solar-powered revolving restaurant which figured in the James Bond movie, "On Her Majesty's Secret Service." I was impressed that the prices in the restaurant, where everything must be brought in by cable car, were no higher than they were in the valley. Swiss restaurants in relatively remote locations do not gouge patrons.

With enough stamina and/or recklessness, one can hike up to the Schilthorn's 10,000' summit. During our visit, a dozen people struggled up the stairs to the platform. Most obviously were not prepared for the cold and snow. Some wore tee-shirts and sneakers. Most had begun their walk from Mürren, but some hardy souls had set out from the valley. When one haggard man stumbled up the last step and stood gripping the rail, perspiration dripping from his chin, my wife asked him where he had come from.

"Czechoslovakia," he gasped.

On a cloudy day, go down the mountain for a visit to Ballenberg Open-Air Museum near Brienz. This outdoor museum of rural architecture, agriculture and ecology features authentic rural structures, some hundreds of years old. They were moved to this location in order to preserve them in a region-by-region display of Swiss country life. We took the steamer from Interlaken to Brienz, and returned by train.

If you are not a willing walker, the region is still accessible by train and cable. Don't fret about changes of three or four minutes. The trains are on time, and you will not miss connections. Ask passersby for directions. One caveat: Be sure the car you board is going to your destination. The train from Interlaken to the Lauterbrunnen Valley, for example, splits at Zweilütschinen, some cars going to Grindelwald and some to Lauterbrunnen. Though we had been warned, we boarded the wrong car.

Investigate the various transportation passes. They are great money and time savers. We bought the eight-day second-class Swiss Pass. It covers most trains, steamers, postal buses, and many cable systems. The pass also carries a discount for systems not fully covered. For a description and prices of the different passes, see a travel agent or write to Rick Steves' Europe Through the Back Door, P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, WA 98020-2009, or see his web site. If you buy your passes from Steves, you may qualify for a complimentary copy of one of his travel books.

Accommodation is not the problem that one might expect in this idyllic setting. We were there in the first half of July, almost high season, and rooms were available everywhere in hotels, hostels, pensions, and B&Bs. In addition to the Mittaghorn, SFR70 ($60) for two with shower and breakfast (tel. 41 33 855 16 58), there is a youth hostel, pension and B&B in Gimmelwald. In Mürren, we stayed at Chalet Fontana, a pretty B&B run by Denise Fussell, a young English woman who has lived here over ten years. SFR35-45 each ($30-34), which includes a delicious buffet breakfast. Tel. 33 855 26 86, or write to her.

Stägerstübli, the family-operated restaurant just across the street from Chalet Fontana, is open late and serves at outside tables, in the pub, and in the dining room at the back. We ate here almost every evening.

For a complete listing of hotels and information on attractions, weather, and train and cable schedules, look at the web page for the Mürren and the Jungfrau region. Or contact the Swiss National Tourist Office, 608 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10020, (212) 757-5944. Mention that you are particularly interested in the Jungfrau-Lauterbrunnen Valley region. 

Caveat and disclaimer: This is a freelance travel article that I published some time ago. Some data, especially prices, links and contact information, may not be current.


Writing | Home | Travel Articles