The train ride from Stuttgart to Interlaken, Switzerland was the smoothest yet. We made one transition to another train while in Germany. Coming into Switzerland was stunning. I had been fixed on the scenic countryside in Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany, but Switzerland was a thousand times better than anything I had seen. Interlaken is a fair sized city that sits in between two pristine lakes at the base of a section of the Alps with streams feeding it from the varioius mountains. It was magnificent. We took a train at Interlocken to get us up into the mountains through valleys and over crystal clear streams to the base town of Lauterbrunnen. Our rail passes were no good on this small train and we had to pay a small fee of euros. The view from this town was astounding; a clear view up the valley towards high alpine mountains with a large waterfall right falling off a sheer mountainside cliff above the edge of the town. Here we had to withdraw Swiss Francs from an ATM to take a small shuttle up further up the valley to Stechelberg where the gondola to Gimmelwald was (The Swiss aren’t apart of the Euro–probably because their currency is unimagineably cool looking). The view from the gondola going up was cool as you could imagine, but it was nothing compared to the view from Gimmelwald. Our hostel was at the edge of the little mountain village and had an astounding view of the mountains from our nestled point at the intersection of several valleys. A few dozen smalI log cabin homes surrounded by plenty of mountain flowers and grass, with small pastures for goats, cows, and chickens were all there was to Gimmelwald beyond our hostel and the restaurant. It was beyond picturesque. It reminded me very much of the depicted lands of the shire in LOTR, which I ironically found out later that Tolkien had traveled to this area of Switzerland in 1911 before he fought in WWI, and the mountain villages of this region were the inspiration for the Shire in The Hobbit and the trilogy. I also later found out there was a LOTR museum in the eastern part of the country, quite far from us, so I didnt feel as bad for not going to it. We celebrated our arrival in paradise by having an amazing Swiss burger at the restaraunt next to the hostel with the same view of the mountains, walked around the village awestruck for a little while, and then went to our 16 bunk room (quite nice and cozy actually), to rest up for the next day.
Day 1- Chilchbalm
Breakfast was provided free between 8-930 AM. It consisted of a really thick oatmeal like cereal along with bread and toppings for them. We loaded up on this and headed out into the valley past Gimmewald. Beyond the small path was pure wilderness. The mountains were on either side of us as we walked past endless little waterfalls which drained into the stream in the middle of the valley. There was a light rain and it was a little cloudy, which it was about half of the time we were in Switzerland, but it did little to detract from the sights and it wasn’t cold or wet enough to be uncomfortable. Over bridges and past countless pure green pastures we went on for a distance of probably 5 miles before we came to the end of the valley, “Chichbalm” as its known. If you are reading this currently, my Facebook cover photo is the view we had walking up to the end of the valley. Words don’t do justice to the view. Dozens of waterfalls and tributary streams emptied into the larger valley stream. An unmelted glacier of snow and ice from the winter was off to the left. Small avalanches from the melting mountain snows could be heard thundering around the peaks, which was then followed by showers of snow we could see hitting the valley floor. We hiked to the very physically possible height one could go without scaling sheer cliffs, and in the distance down the valley from here we could see where we were staying in Gimmelwald. Lots of jet black alpine salamanders were up here, which I later read about; they apparently move very seldomly and live up to 15 years. We spent well over an hour at this end of the valley, before taking the trail back which was an entirely different scene than the way there. Our hostel had some fine pizza for us on our return. We made a short trip by Gondola to the larger mountain town of Murren so jacob could look for some hiking shoes. Lastly, back at Gimmewald I relaxed and sat out on the front of the Hostel with front row seats to the view of the mountain coming to nightfall. This night I met a really cool Aussie named James. He found my phone outside after I dropped it and returned it to the front desk. I asked him about his favorite places in Italy and got pointers for where to go, and I recommended a few of the places we had been in Gimmewald, including the end of the valley at Chichbalm.
Day 2- On the 2nd day I really wanted to go up to the high peak of Schilthorn. This is the highest place in Europe that one can travel to without mountain climbing supposedly. I had the same hardy breakfeast and made the 30 foot journey to the Gondola. The ticket up through the Gondola was rather pricey, even with a Eurorail discount we got, it was at least 60 Swiss Francs, which is probably about 50 dollars. We crammed into a Gondola car with probably 30 other people, the vast majority of which were Asian women. There was some famous Japanese mountain climber who had climbed some of these Swiss mountains, so it was apparently a very popular destination for Japanese people in particular. I wouldn’t normally mention this, but on the way up the mountain is was 0 visibility with clouds, which got us really worried that we just wasted 50 bucks. But just before we reached the very top we broke the cloud line to a stunning view of the highest peaks around us. The 20 or so asian women also enjoyed this, because at that moment every single one of them in unison made the most excited noise of “ohhhhhhh!” that you could imagine. I was laughing uncontrollably for a few minutes. The view at the top was breath taking and worth every cent. A roatating restaraunt sat at the top of the structure here with a panoramic view of the mountains. We got to enjoy that view for probably 20-30 minutes before the clouds that were dominating the mountain sides suddenly swarmed up over us creating 0 visibility again. Lucky for us, this was the site of many scenes in the 1969 James Bond movie “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”. They had a gift shop with limitless expensive apparel that said “Bond World” or something similar. They had a little museum with props, scripts, and mini videos wthout interviews talking about the making of the movie at the site. Ironically, James, the Aussie I had met earlier, was up here too, and we rode back down with him after a while up at the top because it was looking like the stunning view of the mountains was not coming back anytime soon because of the clouds. Worth the 20 minutes, but It would certainly be better when you can see further down the mountain ranges without clouds obstruction.
James was going Paragliding from one of the peaks and asked if we wanted to join, which I would have done in a heartbeat if the weather was a little better. I didn’t want the risk of paying 170 Francs for it if I wasn’t going to get a guranteed sunny and clear view all the way around. Instead we decided to do a lot of hiking to get to some of the must sees of the area. We definetly took a lot longer way than we wanted to, but I couldn’t really complain. Hiking through alpine forests was as surreal as it sounds. We got on track hiking the trail we had wanted, going over hills and through pastures. One of these grazing pastures had a dozen cows right in the middle of where we were supposed to go. I’m sure these cows were dosile and harmless, but these things were enormous, and we opted out of going directly in between them for fear of being mauled. We took the much safer route under a slighty electrified fence up a hill. Going behind the cows, we actually startled them a bit and so we fast walked through to the other side. Heading towards our peak of choice, Bryndll, we were now in a really cool semi residential area settled half way through another valley. Rolling hills of unbelievably green grass, and a stream with little waterfall after little waterfall. It was Shire 2.0. At first we were trying to look for a waterfall that you could walk behind, and wandering these hills we ran into a couple local Swiss guys working on the land who were really nice and directed us to where we wanted to go in fair English. Realizing the waterfall was further down the mountain, we opted to go up to Bryndll and hit the waterfall on the way back to Gimmewald. This hiking was steep, snow covered at parts, and slightly treacherous. My belt broke half way up the mountain, which sucked (I got a cool Swiss belt later). We came past a woman who asked where Gimmewald was and claimed to have been walking for 5 hours, which was slightly discouraging. Jacob was wearing running shoes, so his traction was minimal at best, and as we got further up, the moisture and mud around the mountain began caking his shoes making all of his steps much more treacherous than mine, because I was wearing some killer hiking boots my mom had got me for Christmas a couple years ago (thanks mom). This made my trek much more pleasant and less exhausting. I made it to the very peak of the small mountain, up some qestioanble paths and close quarters. I felt triumphant at the top and proceeded to take pictures and videos to celebrate. Clouds obscured some of my vision of the upper mountains, but not much, and I had a clear view of gimmewald and the winding stream at the base of the valley. From here I could also see the beloved end of the valley site we went to, Chichbalm. Jacob was probably a hundred feet from the summit, but had to stop because the incline was becoming too much for his shoes, and at this point slipping meant falling a good distance down the hill and possibly off the mountain.
Coming down, we decided to take a different way that seemed quicker than the way we came up wouldve been, because we saw a hiker take the path and get down to the valley base within a few minutes. This path ended up being shoulders length and mostly covered by snow, with minimal distance to a sheer drop off and no safety rope. This was the most dangerous part of the hike, and we took our time moving across, eventually making our way down a little winding path that got us to the valley base likely no faster than the other way we came.
We were pretty beat, but luckily the path down to gimmewald crossed the waterfall I wanted to see. It was quite a sight; behind the large waterfall you got a glimpse of a tall peak between the water crashing into the rock in front of you. It was a good last destination for our time in Switzerland. Needless to say, after this we were pretty much zombies. We got some cheap dinner at the place above the hostel, sitting with several other American guests. There was a rumor that Rick Steves (Travel guru) was in Murren just a short gondola ride away. His social media indicated that he was in northern Italy, so its possible. We came to the conclusion that anyone who had heard of Gimmelwald, including ourselves, had only done so through Rick Steve’s travel guides. We then did some laundry, played some pool, and relaxed at the hostel. I kicked Jacob’s butt in 5 games of chess if you were wondering.
We got our minds blown when one of our graduating classmates from Sun Prairie High school, Nate Keuffer showed up at the hostel for a stay while he was visiting Switzerland. The odds for that chance meeting still baffle me.
The next morning we had to head out to finally make our way to Florence, Italy to check in with our school. Back down the Gondola to the beautiful lower valley towns, we took the bus to a huge chain of waterfalls underground which was the last thing I had scouted out as a thing to do. We unfortunately were out of Francs, and they didn’t take credit card, and there wasn’t an ATM for miles. Its a priority next time, and I definetely will be coming back. But this actually ended up being for the best, because we had barely any time to spare by the time we got to Interlaken, and we had to sprint from our quick noodle lunch there to just barely catch the train.
Gimmewald and Switzerland was so great because it was a repreive from the constant urban settings we were use to. Lots of tourists, trains, cars, and planes were the norm at all of our previous fantastic destinations, but here it was the pure natural world. It wasn’t peak tourism season, and even if it was I’m sure we would barely have seen anyone. The land, water, and little settlements were unimaginably pristine. It was an area settled for centuries but had escaped excessive settlement and construction that is normal for areas elsewhere in the world with such raw beauty. Gimmelwald, at its perch in the heart of the Swiss Alps was literally the most beautiful place I have ever been in my life, and I doubt that even with so much left to see, it will match quite the admiration I have for this leg of the trip.
The official motto of Gimmelwald is “If heaven isn’t what it’s cracked up to be, send me back to Gimmelwald”.