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Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Mile High and Peace of Mind

Written by Scott Haas
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       Switzerland is full of villages, remote or close to cities and many of them are known to me.  For a small nation, the variety is remarkable as is an infrastructure that enables people to get to places without fuss.  Depending on what I am looking for in a holiday determines what sort of Swiss experience I create.  I have been twenty five times over many years.

      This past May, feeling nearly overwhelmed by a series of events in my family that centered around the end of my mother’s long life, I knew benefit would come about from placement in a village as faraway as possible, but still reachable by the Swiss transportation system.

      People have been coming to Switzerland for centuries seeking peace of mind, a chance to either forget their troubles or see them anew in the context of what are for many the world’s most beautiful mountains.  At one time, before medicine caught up, clinics appeared throughout the country where people with tuberculosis could breathe in the clean, cold mountain air, drink hearty broths, and eat rich food that would, they hoped, put color back into their cheeks and restore vigor.  

      The most famous episode of this belief is, “The Magic Mountain,” which is Thomas Mann’s novel about men and women who emerge from Europe’s tumult.

      Just as dramatically, Switzerland has long been a haven for artists, like Tristan Tzara and nowadays Tina Turner, who seek homes away from paparazzi and tax collectors.

      For those of us who are more ordinary, the country offers a chance to wander perfect mountain paths, many of them on ridges, and to feel a part of Alpine life.

      Several Swiss villages are car-free, and my favorite one of all is Muerren, over a mile high in the heart of the Bernese Oberland, which is roughly in the center of the country and defined by the Alps, huge lakes, long and glacial valleys, high waterfalls, and dense pine and deciduous forests.  

      To reach Muerren, if you are starting from the Zurich airport, you take a train to Lauterbrunnen.  From there you either take a bus to Stechelberg and then a cable car up to Gimmelwald and then a second cable car to Muerren.  Or you take a cable car from Lauterbrunnen to Grütschalp and then a cog railway to Muerren.  The trip up makes it evident that you are indeed as faraway as you can get by public transportation and still be proximate to the real world.

      Muerren is tiny, under 1,000 year round inhabitants, and it has one long “main” and narrow “road” lined with about a half dozen small hotels and restaurants, a bakery, a grocery store, a butcher shop, and a few stores selling sports equipment and souvenirs.  Just above is a long path that leads to a few more small hotels and the newly renovated sports center, which has a beautiful swimming pool, spa, and small cafe.  Throughout the village are an array of two or three story buildings and most of them are divided up into one story flats.


 

      Switzerland has a reputation for being exorbitantly expensive, and while it’s true that eating in many restaurants with decent food can be at luxury prices with entrees often between $35 and $45 dollars and its city hotels are pricey, there are numerous ways to avoid the sting.  

      Although the Swiss are, in general, extremely affluent, they are not typically profligate in how they spend money on food and lodging.  I’ve had friends in Switzerland for many years and they have been kind enough to show me the ropes.

      The first thing I did, back in May, was try to find a good rental.  Compared to the United States, getting a vacation apartment is quite reasonable.  It was only a month from my departure date, but I found a three-bedroom flat for $2,500 for three weeks that would accommodate four of us in my family.  Do the math: That’s about $120 a night and about $30 per person per night.

      The biggest costs, of course, were the flights over and Swiss rail passes.  The passes, which are first or second class, are a necessary expense because paying for each ride adds up exorbitantly.  The passes cover nearly everything except for some of the cable cars, cog railways, and the Jungfraujoch train that are semi-private.

      The big question for those new to the Swiss way of doing things is: What could you possibly get for $2,500 for three weeks?

      But having done this sort of thing before I knew that the baseline for Swiss rentals is much higher and more reliable than nearly any place I’ve ever been.

      We arrived in a marvelous and torrential mountain rain and trudged down the “street” to our flat on the third floor of a lovely, old wooden building at the end of the village.  The owner met us and her husband greeted us at the house.  A retired fire chief of Muerren, he operated a little, electric pulley system that lifted our suitcases up.

      No surprise: The apartment was perfect, spotlessly clean, with a kitchen filled with all the modern appliances needed.  It also had, as most Swiss rentals do, a fondue set and an electric raclette set.  

      And the next morning, when the skies cleared and were cerulean again, we had, from our balcony, an astonishing, spectacular view of three of the most beautiful and famous mountains on earth: Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau.  

      The mountains were directly across the Lauterbrunnen valley, and from our one mile height and due to their majesty, it was as if the snow and glacial covered phenomena were close enough to reach by foot.  


 

      That morning and all subsequent ones were spent on our balcony with hiking breakfasts often of fresh bread, Birchermuesli, yogurt, blood orange juice, eggs scrambled with Gruyere, thin and smoked bacon, and plenty of hot coffee.

      And then, lacing our boots in the hallway, we would set out.  

      The immediate hills above Muerren are filled with pasturelands, the well known Swiss cows with humongous bells strapped to their necks with thick leather, and fields of flowers adjacent to forests.  The views, of course, were stunning in every direction, and the silence and natural power of the landscape sufficient to both distract one from private thoughts as well as fill one up with beauty.  The Swiss appreciation for nature is unsurpassed.  It’s no wonder that invalids and those troubled by life’s vagaries have sought out a country where they can literally join nature.  The experience is transformative.

      The hikes, true to the Swiss way of doing things, were more like long walks than uphill battles.  We would reach a ridge, which admittedly took effort and no more than forty-five minutes, and then establish a decent pace that lasted between three to five hours.

      In between we stopped for simple picnics of cheese, air dried beef called Bundnerfleish or Mostbroeckli (regional names), fruit, and rolls.  The Swiss have conquered the Alps and we also stopped often at tiny inns at high altitudes to enjoy coffee or tea.

      The idea is to enjoy the mountains, take nature in, and, ironically, to accept its force passively.  You surrender to its power.

      At the end of the day, the hike over, we stopped off at a pub on the main (and only) drag in Muerren.  Edelweiss has exquisite views of the Alps from its terrace.  Stangerstubli is a hangout for locals.  Cold beer on draft after a day on your feet is perfection.

      The region of Muerren is not just for hiking.  Yes, they say that skiing was invented here by an Englishman over a century ago.  Or was that Wengen across the valley?  Either way, any season is ideal for a long visit.

      We hiked all but one day out of three weeks, and we took time off then to ascend to Jungfraujoch.  A marvel of engineering has enabled a train to climb to what amounts to a slight recess between the Mönch and Jungfrau.  In the summer, as many as 5,000 visitors take the trip, which lasts over an hour, and at the top, which is 3,471 meters, people spread out in all directions to take in a huge and fascinating Visitors Center.

JJ 008 Sphinx Gletscher Rgb


 

      I had thought that it might be touristic and overwhelming perhaps to be among so many people, but the size of the center is large enough to accommodate everyone.  You enter tunnels, an ice palace, an observatory, and, if you like, restaurants.  What matters more than the sheer, spectacular engineering of it all are the views.

JJ 114 Eispalast Rgb

      You face on one side an enormous glacial field called the great Aletsch Glacier.  The word “awesome” is applied to many experiences that are far from awesome.  This was awesome.

JJ 059 Jungfraujoch Sphinx Rgb

      For miles as far as the eye can see, snow and ice form a field bordered by mountain peaks.  It was terrifying and beautiful at the same time, and nothing I have ever seen in nature felt more profound.  It was literally shocking.  You had a sense of aloneness on earth, and one that you gradually accepted and then embraced when you realized that it was what was needed to forget.

          

©Scott Haas

JJ 121 Aletschgletscher Rgb

 

                         Where to Stay: 

A great source for holiday rentals is this site: http://chalet.myswitzerland.com/holiday-rentals/Muerren.  The apartment we rented can be reached via : www.alpenheim.ch.  Rental rates do not include canton (state) and city taxes that are calculated on a per person, per day basis.  

 

                          What To Do:

Basically, you go to Muerren to escape reality for as long as possible: Hike, see the Alps, cook a good meal, enjoy first rate Swiss wines, and put pain in perspective.  No one lasts forever, only mountains do.

 

                          Getting Around:  

All aboard!  http://www.swiss-pass.ch

 

                          Resources:

The source for all thing Swiss: http://www.myswitzerland.com/en-us/home.html

 

How to get to Jungfraujoch: http://www.jungfrau.ch/en/company/rail-cableways/

Last modified on Friday, 01 November 2013