Murren Switzerland – Gem of the Alps

After completing Ironman Switzerland my wife Lis and I headed up to Mürren in the Swiss alps for my recovery. We knew nothing of the area except our friends Cliff and Valeria Dewees from Motueka New Zealand were going to be visiting there and we looked forward to spending some time with them. Little did we realize what an absolute treat we were in for.

The trip from Zurich was longer, and more tedious, than anticipated. Not the sort of thing one wants to do the morning after swimming 3.8km, biking 180km and then running/walking a 42km marathon. We caught the train IMGP3448 (Small)to Berne where we changed to the train to Interlaken. From there it was another train to Lauterbrunnen. Then we took a gondola up the mountain where we boarded the final train tiny to Mürren (right) . Oh yes, we then walked about 1 km to the hotel, arriving some 4.5 h after we left. With our three suitcases – some 75 kg since it included all my triathlon gear (including bike), it was not fun. By the time I got to the hotel I was absolutely stonkered.

IMGP3481 (Small) Cliff had found the Hotel Blumenthol on the Internet and we were staying in a new chalet which was behind the old main hotel. After depositing two of our bags in the ski room – no need for my triathlon bicycle up here – we found ourselves in a very comfortable room. Apologies for the photo to the left; Lis has an annoying habit of taking lots of photos at an angle 🙂

Normally I’m nonchalant about food, but that is not true after a hard triathlon. On the walk from the train I had checked out several menus and so immediately after depositing IMGP3257 (Small) our gear it was time for refuelling. One side benefit to the wet weather we had in Zurich was that the mountains had a dusting of snow. We sat at a restaurant with a million dollar view over the alps and we both knew that this was going to be a special break.  

Jungfraujoch

After an early night we awoke to clear blue sky and the promise of a sunny day. We had a quick breakfast at the hotel and then headed out for the day. Our goal was to visit Jungfraujoch – the ‘Top of Europe’. Located near the Eiger mountain, this was the highest railway station in Europe at some 3750 metres. Built through the mountain – yes through – the railway is an amazing engineering achievement.

We wandered down to the railway station enjoying the empty roads. Mürren is a IMGP3254 (Small)‘car free’ zone, where there are only a few vehicles, mainly for farmers or moving tourist luggage to hotels.  The town consisted mainly of hotels and restaurants, and lots of tourists. The manager of our hotel told us that this was the ‘off season’ so the town was relatively empty. Must be a zoo in winter when it is full. The tourists seemed to be mainly Japanese, followed by North Americans. There were a few token Europeans 🙂

Lis has bought us Swissrail passes which, if you are visiting Switzerland, are the best way to travel. These not only gave us train rides but also discounts on gondolas and also free museum and (some) boat rides.  We boarded the train from Lauterbrunnen up to Jungfraujoch and were disappointed to find that the pass only covered travel as far as Wengen, about 1/3 the way up the mountain. We duly went to the ticket office in Wengen and found that it was going to be US$100 each to go the rest of the way! After getting over the sticker shock we decided to go for it, and were glad that we did. We found that the others had paid US$175 to come from Lauterbrunnen. Ouch. Let’s hear it for Swissrail discounts!

The train up to Jungfraujoch was a ‘cog’ train. IMGP3268 (Small)The steep inclines make it impossible to use the traction between the steel wheels and rails and so between  the rails there is a continuous third track which has a series of teeth. There is a cog on the train which then pulls the train up by the teeth. Since it was such a nice day the train was very packed and I ended up standing. Pretty expensive trip to stand!  The train took us up the valley above Lauterbrunnen and then through a series of tunnels before we found ourselves in the mountains proper.

Out the windows we saw the glacier fields that we had observed across the valley in Mürren and then we entered an avalanche cave before the tunnels leading up IMGP3271 (Small)to the top of Jungfraujoch. There was a video showing the construction of the tunnels over 100 years ago and the techniques were the same as we are using today in China: pneumatic drills and explosives.  Must have been exceptionally grim working at these altitudes where the weather can change in a moment and be very harsh.

The train stopped at some lookout points but because of the jam in the train I didn’t get off. These are also used to rescue climbers who get into grief when climbing the Eiger. Imagine getting stuck on a mountain and taking a train home! I could, however, see why the Eiger’s face was not climbed until 1938. Interestingly, Heinrich Harrier was on the team which conquered the mountain. He went on to write the book ‘Seven Years in Tibet’ after escaping British internment in India.

We decamped with the hordes at the top of Jungfraujoch. IMGP3295 (Small) It is very hard to describe the place. It consists of a building which is almost precariously attached to the top of the mountain (the photo to the right shows the top of the hill). The mountain has been riddled with tunnels and galleries so that you can visit several restaurants (including ‘Planet Bollywood’ for the latest in Indian fare), an Ice Palace, which looks to be drilled through a glacier, as well as several tourist shops. Sending post cards seemed to be particularly popular.

In spite of its being a ‘tourist trap’ (anyone for a 5 minute husky IMGP3275 (Small) sled ride?) the views were absolutely spectacular. To have views like these I’ve had to traipse up mountain trails in Nepal, not simply take the train! There were mountains as far as the eye could see, with the glacier to the left snaking off to the horizon.

They have a scientific observatory and we went outsideIMGP3279 (Small). It was refreshing to say the least! There was a very biting wind, but the sun with its reflections from the snow made us feel very warm – outside of the wind. It was great to look to the south and see the cloud layer below us.

We decided to take the lift down and go for a walk on the glacier, forgoing the husky ride 🙂 There was a flying fox where people – usually young children – zoomed down a hill towards a pile of snow in the glacier. Others were tobogganing on plastic discs, while others skied.

IMGP3291 (Small)Our goal was a lodge and it took us about 45 minutes to walk up to it. It was windy and we saw a young girl’s hat fly off across the snow, to be accompanied by loud wailing. Her father wisely decided not to retrieve it since the snow off the path was deep and there was danger of falling into crevasses which we had observed from up top.

Without the wind it was quite warm IMGP3287 (Small)on the snow, as our sunburn from the reflected sun would prove.  I posed for the shot to the right to show how I spent my ‘recovery’ days after my Ironman race! Unfortunately, on the way down I slipped and twisted my knee which was still troubling me two weeks later, but it was worth the visit to see such an amazing glacier.

Once back in the tunnels we visited the ice palace which, as mentioned earlier, was tunnelled into a glacier. They had ice carvings which were a mere shadow of the excellent ones that I saw a few years ago in Harbin, China. They need to get some Chinese artists to Switzerland!

When we decided to descend we took an obscure lift which proved to be very serendipitous. The queue for the train was HUGE but this left brought us out towards the front which I was grateful for. Seems that a train had broken down, and one one of the busiest days! So we got home in good time where I enjoyed another meal. Becoming food obsessed it seems …

Lake Thun

Another fine day beckoned so we decided to go to Lake Thun where there was a boat that travelled from Interlaken to Thun.

IMGP3344 (Small) One very impressive aspect to the Swiss rail system is the way that everything runs … like a Swiss clock. You arrive in a town to change trains and 3-5 minutes later the train leaves. Even the same with the boats. We got off the train, and within ten minutes we were pulling out to the lake. In a contrast to the previous day, our boat ride was free with our rail passes if we stayed in second class. That suited us as it allowed us to sit at the back of the boat out of the wind but enjoying the sun.

The boat travelled the length of the lake, stopping regularly at different towns. Everything in IMGP3347 (Small)Switzerland was well kept, especially the places down near the lake.  We passed summer houses with their own docks holding very pricey boats,  exclusive hotels, and even the occasional castle! The weather was brilliant and it was great to see all the people taking advantage of the weather by boating on Interlaken lake.

When we got to Thun we missed the train (we wasted precious minutes trying to find the right track) but that was fortunate as we got a later train which stopped at Spiez, a neat looking town we had passed on the boat. We spent the intervening time feeding a fascinating array of different coloured ducks and other birds with our left over bread.

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Getting off the train we walked down through the town towards the schloss (castle) that we had seen from the boat. My knee was a bit sore from the previous day so I wasn’t looking forward to the return visit!

The town was immaculate, just like everywhere else we saw in Switzerland, with flower boxes on the buildings and a general air of IMGP3351 (Small)prosperity.  Outside the schloss there were beautiful gardens which Lis really appreciated. I’m not a flower person so it good that at least one of us is!

The schloss had a museum (free thanks to our rail pass!) which we explored. It was fascinating to see the various rooms in the schloss but the tower was especially interesting. You ascended up and up through different floors until you were presented with incredible views of the lake and the surrounding countryside. IMGP3370 (Small) 

Looking at the construction it was surprising to see that it had lasted as long as it did, but the graffiti on the walls from the middle-ages attested to the quality of the original construction!

The museum had paintings of the area and it seems that for most of the time the surrounding area was not inhabited but consisted only of fields. I wondered where the locals would have lived, and just how difficult life was during those periods. Given that most of the schloss’ owners seemed to have died before their 45th birthday (at least those with paintings), life was tough.

After exploring more of the town it was back to the train and to Murren. Cliff and Valeria were due that day, and we planned to meet them at the train. However, they arrived before we did so it was great to see them and have a catch up.

Water Falls

Lauterbrunnen is known as the valley of 73 waterfalls. They fall down into the valley from both sides, IMGP3265 (Small)often in what looks to be slow motion. We decided with Cliff and Valeri to visit Trummelbach falls. These were unusual insofar as the waterfall in inside the mountain. The source of the water is the same glacier we had seen the previous day at Jungfraujoch – along with the Eiger and Monk – draining an area of over 24 square kilometres.

I had forgotten my jacket on the boat/train the previous day which was a bother.  In return for my jacket Lis had found a walking stick which proved to be very helpful over the next few days given my sore knee.  Our first stop was the sporting goods shops in Lauterbrunnen where I managed to find something suitable.

From there we walked from Lauterbrunnen to the falls, passing farms and appreciating the countryside.IMGP3394 (Small) The ladies strode off ahead of us while Cliff and I brought up the rear at a nice easy pace.  The farms were all immaculate and often bedecked in colourful flower boxes – as seemed to be most buildings. Lis told us the story of a friend of hers from Germany who live in Switzerland. The neighbours threatened to report them to the authorities because their lawn grass was too long. So everything comes with a price …

It is impossible to adequately describe the waterfall, so I’ll just show a bunch of photos – which are also inadequate! Suffice to say that it was truly amazing. You took a lift up the mountain and then followed a path cut through rock which ascended to the top, all the time the water cascading down to the side with a thunderous roar.

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After the waterfalls we travelled down to Interlaken. It was raining heavily when we arrived so we took shelter in a restaurant across from the train station. When the rain didn’t let up we ventured out – cliff wearing a poncho over his rain coat which gives you some idea of the weather!

The town was quite pretty but very upmarket – especially down by the casino. Valeria was looking for a swim suit so we visited a number of stores. I didn’t mind as I scored an Economist magazine, and when she found some to try on Cliff and I were able to escape to the bicycle section and admire Swiss bicycles. That always keeps me amused for a while 🙂

Rest Day

By this time I was really feeling tired, not having had much of a break since my race. So the next day I had a sleep in while Lis worked on the Internet. It was a cold, gray day and so that seemed like a good use of time.

As it cleared in the afternoon we decided to go for a walk down to Lauterbrunnen. Lis’ plan was to walk back but I decided that discretion was the better part of valour so to give my knee a break I’d take the gondola back up. As the photos below show, it was a magical walk.

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James Bond

OK. What does James Bond have to do with hiking in the alps? A lot if you know the 1969 film ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’. The bad guy lived on a mountain top villa which happened to be located above Mürren. The Schiltorn/Piz Gloria, located at about 3000 m, is actually a restaurant/observation point, but it was a great backdrop for the film which was made just before it was completed.

We headed down early in the morning on another beautiful day to the cable car which would take us to IMGP3471 (Small)the Schiltorn. They claimed  that this is the longest free standing aerial tramway, and I would believe it. We climbed high over the valleys below no supporting stations along the way. Below us we could see the ski fields which Mürren is so popular for in the winter. Although I’ve skied in some quite exciting places, I’d be a  bit worried to take a wrong turn here – lots of cliffs to fall off! However, the views would be just spectacular.

After a change of cable cars we found ourselves at the top of the world with amazing 360 degree views.

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They had a film showing the history of the place and Lis had a good chuckle at the excerpts from the James Bond movie. She was under the mis-conception that it could actually be somewhat believable! Poor girl, she had such a sheltered upbringing …

Even though it was sunny, there was a bitterly cold wind in the air so it was nice to pop inside for a few minutes and get a break. There was the requisite gift shop where a great number of the things for sale had a James Bond theme. Funny that. I indulged Lis with an over priced coffee mug to add to our expansive collection from our trips.

After further admiring the views we headed down and were surprised by the people dressed IMGP3476 (Small)somewhat unusually as shown to the right. They were British (of course!) and participating in a car rally from Manchester to Venice. The only requirement was that the cars had to cost 300 pounds or less. They were down to two cars now as the others had already broken down. When we got to the bottom we saw about a dozen others similarly attired in the huge queue waiting to ascend. Glad we were early risers – and less conspicuously dressed!

The rest of the day was to be spent on a long hike along the valley, IMGP3483 (Small)heading down towards Interlaken. We caught the cable car behind our hotel up the mountain and then headed south through the fields along a very nice path. Although my knee was still acting up, except on the downhill sections it was fine for walking. Unfortunately, Lis had overdone it so her knees were bothering her even more – she ended up with my (actually hers – she found it) walking stick.

It is impossible to not sound repetitive with all these superlatives but it was nothing short of stunning. As the photos below show.

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The walk ended up being a bit long – and I’ll do a mea culpa over this. I didn’t want it to end so probably pushed the others along a bit too much. However, after making it back to the train we all agreed that it was worth the general exhaustion!

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The next day Cliff and Valeria escorted us to the train and we headed off to Denmark. So ended an absolutely delightful holiday in the Swiss alps. It would have been nice not have been so ‘delicate’ after my Ironman race so that I could have been a bit more full of vim an vigour, however, as it was I really appreciated the spectacular scenery and the great company. So if you are into mountains and want an unbeatable holiday I strongly recommend Mürren. It has all the benefits of Nepal, with far more comforts, and none of the drawbacks. Both Lis and I are very grateful to Cliff and Valeria for introducing us to such an amazing place. I’m sure we will return again.

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