It’s Saturday, Saturday …

Rain fell overnight, much to the delight of the Swiss who are enduring a drought that has not only parched its creeks and waterways but also left its famous skiing regions bereft of snow.

Meanwhile, in our little town the streets are filling up with wooden cabins of varying styles, going from slapped-together plywood shacks to fanciful cottages of beadboard walls and gingerbread trim, and then to the grand stuff: A heavily-timbered log cabin. Yes, a real log cabin. All this is in preparation for Biel/Bienne’s Christmas Market, which promises to be a fabulous one, but it does not open until next weekend and so later today we’ll head to Zürich where there are not one but two Christmas Markets, plus what has been promised to be a fabulous light display. I’ll post those pictures later.

In the meantime, here are some photos of last weekend’s wanderings:

This was our second time strolling through the village of Murren. It was almost December and we expected snow, but saw none but that which topped the mountains. The ski hills are reported to be dry, choking the Swiss economy which is already battling the woes of having a strong currency in a weak market.

You can access Murren on either side by gondola and a cute little train ride, but you can also walk between either access points. This is the trail between Murren and the Lauterbrunnen gondola station. It is an easy walk with only mild grades and goes through some forest that looks a lot like Vancouver Island's Galloping Goose. A motorized wheelchair could make this trip with just a little help over some rough patches.

The mountain-clinging village of Murren is full of sturdy-timbered chalets that look exactly as you would expect them to, but this one. This one is a little sloppy compared to the rest.

 

Murren: We think this is a charming way to decorate a ski cabin.

 

 

Here is a Swiss mountain. As Bernese Mountain Dogs are my witness, I do not know its name.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Timid traveller at the halfway point, sort of

Steve: We're on a mountainside. What could go wrong?

Oh not much, except maybe falling off a cliff.

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We are reaching the halfway point of our stay here in Switzerland. I started this blog to give some insight on the realities of overseas life, which from the outside has a glam shine to it, but on the inside, is more like listening the grinding sound of our lives coming to a halt. It is akin to being stuck in traffic, except the scenery is always changing.

I admit the scenery is pretty spectacular.

Being away means that we lose pockets of widely known information, such as who was premier in British Columbia. I was totally unaware of David Miller’s term in that office, owing to a protracted stay in Spain during his short tenure. At this moment, I cannot name most of Canada’s provincial premiers, even those that I have lived in.

On a more personal level, we lose touch with the dramas and comedies running in the lives of our friends and families, although this is not as parched an informational season as it was on past work terms, thanks to Facebook, email and Skype.

The truth is that living overseas is not the same as touring overseas. It is laced with unsympathetic administrators, and the occasional xenophobe who holds a grudge against all foreign workers and their families.

More mountains. Ugh.

The bureaucratic presence, however, has subsided for the time-being, and despite Switzerland having recently voted in what is regarded as its most insular xenophobic party, the number of actual xenophobes on the street are few. And so without an undercurrent of worry about being kicked out of the country, this blog has turned into something of a travel-blog, replacing the old travelogues – remember those? If you’re do, you are very old.

The problem is that travel blogs are supposed to include adventure and, of course, lots of travel. I am afraid of travel, so any element of adventure in these notes is totally unanticipated by me.

When I worked at a city paper, the editors realized my cowardice and my sheltered risk-adverse lifestyle, and so took it upon themselves to send me wherever the opportunity for crushing injury was most likely to occur. They knew it would generate a lively article typed out by my terrified fingertips, should I still have them on my return to the office.

This week, we did have the potential for a small brush with adventure (aside from the blast and smoke at the train station) with the arrival of Steve, one of our son’s old friends who is working in Switzerland over the winter. Steve is famous for having adventures of all sorts. He’s the type that attracts them, so if ever we were going to plunge off a cliff edge, this would be the day.

The steep cliffs in Lauterbrunnen.

Note of personal interest: Steve actually almost led to our son plunging off a cliff edge on Vancouver Island, when he convinced our boy the climb was not really a pure vertical. Also, Dave will not go golfing with Steve ever again, although Steve says, “You have to get over that.” I will describe what “that” is another time, but it happened almost a decade ago.

As we exited the train at Lauterbrunnen, I commented on how everything was going so well, despite Steve’s presence. He said, “Who would think that in ten minutes, we’ll be clinging to a cliff edge.”

He was wrong about that, but it was not entirely outside of the realm of possibility.

Later that day, when we heard that bang in the Bern train station and saw a column of black smoke rising up to the roof, I was not really surprised. I always expect the worst, so it made sense that we would arrive at the precise moment some terrorist organization should decide to detonate a crowded rail station.

Imagine my surprise that it turned out to be nothing, which leads us to the upside of being a pessimist: Happiness and wonder. Joy is what comes of expecting everything to go wrong, and finding that not everything does.

Optimists miss out on so much.

In the meantime, we have seven or eight more months here. Let’s see if we can get into any trouble in that time. And for those looking for more adrenalin in their lives, check out Jeb Corliss sailing off a Swiss cliff by clicking here. 

Watch your step

The Swiss version of Inukshuks - a more stream-lined design, lacking in pretension.

We turned away from the Mannlichenbaln look-out with the satisfaction that came from knowing that the rest of the hike would be a gentle downhill stroll,dropping from 2,342 metres to 2,061 metres over a 4-km (2.5 mile) trail.

The problem is that a good piece of that drop appears near the beginning of the journey.

I could be wrong about that – the pitch might be only a 30-foot drop over about 50-feet, but as a borderline acrophobe, it looked pretty bad to me. Remember, I’m only five-feet tall – the slightest undulation in the earth’s surface looms larger at my height, or lack thereof.

Every time Dave sees an Inukshuk, he threatens to kick it down. It is his schoolboy playfulness that makes him say that, but as soon as he got within range of a stone-statue field at Kleine-Scheidegg, he started fixing broken statues. What the heck!?

Dave quickly covered the worst of it owing to his long legs and impeccable sense of balance. I, meanwhile, scurried down crab-like, sideways with my fingers clenched to the rope bordering the steepest part of the slope. I would have got down on all fours and crawled, but there were Swiss everywhere and I was mindful that they not see me fall to such depths symbolically, even as I feared falling to worse depths literally.

The path gradually tilted back into a reasonably level grade as we headed south.  Looking back from the glory of relatively level ground, the pitch did not seem so bad, and I decided to adopt a non-chalant attitude towards this mountain-hiking business.

The trail winds along the ridge, without benefit of a single guard rail, which as I pointed out before, is how the Swiss “thin the herd,” and also thumb their noses at safety-conscious Canadians.

I am not wrong about Canadians and their national obsession with safety. As a three-term parks commissioner, I had the unfortunate experience of sitting through meetings listening to shrill arguments against accepting a particular piece of oceanfront parkland from a developer because it featured a narrow rock gorge, the very thing that I asserted made it a steal-of-a-deal while other commissioners fretted over how to protect the public from it by installing concrete blocks, high fencing and an abundance of bright yellow signs depicting human figures falling from great heights with a crown of exclamation marks about their heads as they contemplated their surprising and very imminent deaths.

To listen to the phobic commissioners, one would such think such a fatality occurred weekly, but there have never been any recorded deaths at that site.

I lost that vote, but I am not bitter.

I do wish, however, the Swiss considered guard rails with a more generous eye.

The beetle was clearly coming after me!

As we made our way along, we spied a sparkly hued beetle picking across the path. As I photographed the beetle, it crept gradually in my direction and so I took a step backwards, then another and still one more.  At that point Dave started to twitch and say “Jo!” with an air of urgency.

We have raised two boys, one of whom put us on a first-name basis with the emergency room staff at a hospital in a town where we had then lived only eight months, so Dave and I have both developed immunity to airs of urgency, not because we don’t care, but because they are so common and the ensuing trips to the hospital so much a regular and predictable part of our lives.

I was unknowingly within a spit of going over the edge, and as is always the case in these matters, things got complicated. An elderly undoubtedly Swiss couple – and I say “undoubtedly” because people of that age from any other nation would wisely stick to golf or some other sport that keeps one within a reasonable proximity of sea level – where was I? Oh, the couple – they were just readying to pass between us, and Dave wasn’t sure if any sudden movements on his part, such as grabbing his wife before she started a new life as a quadriplegic, would cause everyone to flinch and thereby more assuredly send me, and maybe a few others over the edge.

He repeated “Jo!” to which I said “What!?” in irritated tones.  I did not see anything to worry about, but then I never do, primarily because I never look where I am going. I leave that to Dave, so you would think I would listen to him. But I don’t.

It suddenly occurred to me that we were in the Swiss Alps and that if Dave thought I should stand still, it might be a fine idea, so I stopped and disaster was averted. The Swiss couple passed by, commenting that the beetle was of the Schoenborgh valliagnachtunggesselschaft variety, which I asked them to spell, but they only repeated the name as though its spelling was as self-evident as the spelling for the word wow. I suppose they did not want to embarrass me by treating me like a second-grader incapable of mastering a simple 17-syllable word.

We did not expect to see cyclists up on the Kleine Scheidegg trail, but there they were.

We made it to the end of the trail, once having to duck out-of-the-way of speeding cyclists, their presence and velocity suggesting their own ends were nigh. One bump of the wheel and that would be it, although they appeared to be Swiss, and so having attained adulthood, were likely not of the accident-prone variety.

By way of interest, while the Kleine Scheidegg trail is long-famous for its dramatic mountain topography, this has been added to in more recent times as it is the model for the Gran Turismo video race-driving game series.

If you go: The trail is mostly level with a well-maintained gravel-and-soil-packed surface that would likely hold well even in wetter seasons. Hiking boots are recommended, but sports shoes are okay. Going at a relaxed pace owing to my burned-out achilles tendons, we covered the 2.5-mile trail in 73 minutes.

Food & Water: Eateries are plentiful at the base of the gondola leading up to the Kleine-Scheidegg trail, however, stopping in at the local grocer “Coop” to purchase a submarine sandwich and a bottled beverage is recommended, particularly if you choose to hike the trail in the hotter season. Cafeteria-style food is available at the end of the Kleine-Scheidegg end of the trail, but not at the Mannlichenbaln gondola station.

Curious about the cost? 

  • 95 CHF Return train travel from Biel/Bienne to Wengen
  • 25 CHF Gondola between Wengen to Mannlichen
  • 16 CHF Two sandwiches purchased from the grocery store
  • 20 CHF Two more sandwiches purchased at another grocery store
  • 22 CHF Lunch at the Crystal Bar Cafe Wengen
  • Total: 178 Swiss Francs (CHF) – or $204 Cdn or $211 US

Tomorrow: More photos from the Kleine-Scheidegg trail and the cogwheel train trip down the mountain.

Dave does not trust me near steep drops. Yes, he is right to not trust me.

Kleine-Scheidegg trail, Swiss Alps, Jungfrau region

What’s wrong with Switzerland

This is not me. Judging by the dozens of paragliders floating over the valley, the Interlaken is an excellent place to catch an updraft. Dave spotted one glider just jump up on a mountain side and take off. Not jump "off," just jump "up." The laws of physics and gravity appear to be suspended in Switzerland.

What’s wrong with Switzerland is that it has mountain peaks that stand on tiptoe at over 13,000 feet above sea level. I’m only five feet above sea level. You can see how scary the Alps can be for someone like me.

We decided to check out (not go up) some of those mountain heights in Switzerland’s famous Interlaken region. After two hours of travel via Swiss Rail for the return-ticket price of $80 for two of us, we arrived at the valley floor of Lauterbrunnen, a quaint Swiss village surrounded by quaint Swiss farmyards that looked very much like Vancouver Island’s Saanich Peninsula, except where the peninsula is surrounded by the Pacific Ocean, the Lauterbrunnen valley is surrounded by mountains.

Dave calls this a “material” difference.

Lauterbrunnen cemetery - placed suspiciously close to Lauterbrunnen gondola

We began what appeared to be an aimless stroll by admiring the Lauterbrunnen cemetery, without argument the tidiest, least-scary graveyard I’ve ever seen, except that only six kilometres away is what I call the Gotten Himmel gondola ride, a five-minute 1,600-foot sweep up from the valley-floor to the mountain-clinging village of Gimmelwald (4,593-feet).

Gotten Himmel means “God in Heaven” and certainly my mind was on spiritual matters, being so close to the resting place of the dead and the gondola, an efficient agent of death if ever I saw one.

The enchanting stroll along the Lauterbrunnen valley, that ends at Recipe for Death gondola ride.

I started to climb the wrought iron fence into the cemetery, reasoning that I might as well just lie down and take root, rather than go through the heart-stopping gondola ride, but Dave convinced me we would just walk the valley and see its famous 10 waterfalls. That the gondola was at the end of the valley and we were walking in its direction did not mean we had to get on it.

The sun was hot, the views hypnotic and the walk long, so that by the time we arrived at the gondola site, I had temporarily lost my mind, which is the only explanation for how I found myself standing in line with a gondola ticket in hand.

I made the ride, without screaming, which proves that living-in-denial is the roadway to achievement, even a modest achievement such as getting through five-minutes of this (click to see 54-second clip of end of ride).

More to follow, including a mountain-side restaurant review.

Murrenbach waterfall plunges 417 feet to valley floor. Lauterbrunnen is a classic glacial valley with near vertical cliffs on both sides.