After spending seven incredible nights at Mountain Hostel in Gimmelwald, Switzerland, it's hard to leave. Over the last week, we hiked up steep mountains covered with impossibly beautiful wildflowers, watched paragliders fly through the valley created by the snowy and dramatic peaks above, and making new friends at our temporary home. Describing how gorgeous this place is will not do it any justice - I don't have the vocabulary to paint a properly picture in your mind, to convey how rich the colors are, how immense the mountains are, to explain what it sounds like when snow careens off a peak in the distance and lands on another cliff below. I don't know how to make you feel like you were there. So, for the details of how magical Gimmelwald is, you'll need to see our pictures. For the details of the people we met and the fun we had, read on. For our 12 hour trip from Vienna to Gimmelwald, we embraced the idea that travel is not just about the destination, it's about the journey. We were dying to see the Austrian and Swiss countrysides, so we opted for several long train rides during the day instead of a night train. While it would have been convenient to go to sleep in Vienna and wake up in Interlakken, the trip would not have been as fun. We thought we'd get a little work done on our journey; Jake would do pictures and I would write. But mostly we found ourselves staring out the windows, oohing and awing and taking video of the various beautiful sites.
Halfway through our first of three trains, Jake looked at our tickets. We needed to be on train 560 to Zurich. The train station sign on our platform told us that the train we boarded was "560/160". Jake compared our tickets to the screen on the wall of our car - "160". Hmmm. We were sure that this was the right train, but why did that say 160? Then we realized that the final destination of our car was Berlin. Did we get in the wrong train? We jumped up with our bags at the next stop, ready to sprint to another train, and asked the car attendant what it all meant. He explained that in 2 stops, this train splits and half the cars go to Zurich, and the other half to Berlin. We simply needed to move up the train to one of the Zurich cars. Phew! We hopped up a couple of cars and found the train info screen, "560 Zurich". As we searched for new seats, we passed through the dining car and saw a man enjoying a delicious Paulaner beer. We couldn't pass up the chance to have one of our favorite beers on a train through this incredible part of the world- it was all too perfect! So we grabbed two bottles, settled into our seats, and resumed staring out the window at the gorgeous lakes.
In his book, The Geography of Bliss, Eric Weiner says, "if anyone can put German trains to shame, it's the Swiss." We were expecting to make our short connections between trains in Zurich and Bern without trouble. Well Eric was wrong! All of our trains were late, forcing us to run through the stations. Thankfully, we made all of our connections and finally arrived in the mountains. Three trains, a bus, and a gondola later, we arrived at Mountain Hostel.
The building that Mountain Hostel is in was built in the 1500s and used as a home for two families. They lived upstairs and kept their cows in the basement barn. In 1996, Petra and Walter bought the building and turned it into the inviting establishment it is today. They raised their two girls in Gimmelwald (now grown) and live down the road. Mountain Hostel is the only hostel in this particular area of the Alps, and is loved by all who stay there thanks to the welcoming hospitality, the homey feel, and the shared love of hiking among the guests. At every meal you'll find the dining room full of people helping each other decide what trails to take that day, or talking about the epic hike they just finished. Petra watches everyone interact and loves when we all put down our phones and make friends with each other. There is a strict no phones rule at the bar and in the restaurant- she wants you to engage with people, not social media. She's a tough nut to crack - if you're a bit more self-conscious, you'd probably think her sideways glance at you means she doesn’t like you. But that’s not so - Petra is a wonderfully welcoming lady who wants to make sure you have a great stay at her hostel, which also means staying on top of guests about cleaning up after themselves and enjoying the great outdoors. We enjoyed chatting with her and getting to know her adorable black cat, King Shadow. I like to think that Shadow liked us too, and not just for the leftover milk in our cereal bowls, because we would find him asleep on Jake's bed, curled up and purring.
Gimmelwald is a funny little town. It consists of about 40 houses, 130 residents (per the 2003 census), cows, goats, and sheep. In addition to Mountain Hostel, there are two hotels. The only restaurants/bars are in the hotels and hostel (and Petra's kitchen is amazing, by the way - the best lasagna I've ever had and perfect beef stew), and the grocery store is a long walk up to the next town over. My favorite shops in town were the "Honesty Shops" - shops without attendants, that have a little box for you to put your money in, and take the items you buy. The whole place is very trusting - and for good reason, I think. If someone is really spending all that money to come all this way to steal something petty, well then let karma deal with them. Thieves and sneaky people do not come to this place. My favorite honesty shop was, seemingly, the basement of someone's home. A small sign on the road say "Self Service Cheese, Milk, and Meat. Please come in". A picture of the couple who owned the place was carved into a big piece of wood and hung by the doorway. A small refrigerator filled with, you guessed it, cheese, milk, and unlabeled meat products, was in the corner, one light bulb was on overhead. As we looked around, we counted no less than 14 axes and other sharp objects, things that looked like horse harnesses with spikes…it kind of seemed like a scary movie set, like the "Gimmelwald Chainssaw Massacre" movie that has yet to be made. Perhaps we would be the stars, and those unlabeled meat products were their last patrons?? As we looked around more I decided I was sufficiently creeped out and it was time to go (before Leatherface jumped out from behind some trap door). We grabbed our cheese, left our money, and ran down the walkway. And yes, the cheese was very good!
Our week at Mountain Hostel started with a great surprise. The evening we checked in, after getting settled and grabbing a snack, we sat down at one of the many tables in the dining room when, all of a sudden, my friend and old Triage coworker, Alexa Golden sat right down next to me! I knew Alexa was traveling - she is taking a few months to travel before starting med school in the fall - but I had no idea she was coming to Gimmelwald! "What are you doing here?!" I yelled as I hugged her. She explained that she used a bunch of recommendations I had given her about different locations to look into for her trip, including Mountain Hostel, and decided to put the Alps on her itinerary! Awesome! I can't believe we checked into the same place, high in the Swiss Alps, on the same day! Before they left, we got to have some beers together, catch up, and make the hour long trek up to the next town, Murren, to explore. It was so great to see her and meet her friend Linda!
The weather man had been threatening heavy rain for the whole week we were in the mountains, and rumor had it that many of the trails were still closed due to snow, so we didn't know what to expect for the next few days. Did we book too long of a stay? Were we going to be locked inside from torrential downpours? We decided to make hay while the sun was shining, literally, and get in as much as we could in the first few days, starting with a gondola ride to Piz Gloria. In the area, there are two big tourist attractions: taking the gondola to "The Top of Europe" (about $250 per person! YIKES!), and taking another gondola up to Piz Gloria, a 360* spinning restaurant that was also the site of James Bond's target in "On Her Majesty's Secret Service". Instead of a restaurant, it was a top secret training location where the bad guy turned beautiful women into killing machines. We each had a coupon giving us 30% off the ticket price, but still felt the pain when we forked over $125 for the experience. The gondola makes 2 stops - one at Birg where you can grab a bite and a beer and challenge your fears by walking out on a hanging ledge over the cliff's edge, and the other at Piz Gloria, where you can take in the views on the other side of the mountains. After walking up to Murren with Alexa and Linda, Jake and I decided to catch the gondola to the top first thing to take in the views before the clouds moved in. We were joined in the gondola by a large group of Asian tourists. (Disclaimer - please forgive me for what may be perceived as cultural insensitivity in the post - I do not know which country in Asia they were from and I will describe their behavior in a way that may sound like sweeping generalizations. I mean no offense to anyone!). As we all piled into the gondola, some of the people in the tour group ran around us, some pushing us out of the way, to get a prime spot against a window. Jake and I laughed at first, but when it happened for the 4th and 5th time over the week, we weren't laughing anymore, we were downright irritated. In any case, we got a great spot by the window too (being taller helped!), and started taking pictures of the mountainside below. Someone was playing what I assume is music from her phone or a speaker in her bag, and the gondola filled with the sound of a Chinese flute. When we started moving, Jake recorded the view out the window on his phone. As we came over a ledge, crossing over one of the big support posts, the big tour group let out a collective "oooooooooooooooo!". When I turned around to see everyone's faces as they ooo'd, my eyes were met with no less than two dozen ipads in the air, their owners quickly snapping pictures. It was hilarious.
We spent about an hour wandering around the 007 movie sight, listening to the iconic James Bond theme song whenever we went inside. It was darn cold up there, and I forgot to bring a jacket, so after one good sweep of the perimeter and some shots of us together, I ran inside to warm up while my photographer husband finished up his photo shoot. We piled back in the gondola with the same tour group, pushing and shoving, but decided to get out at Birg, the stop just below, and let the group carry on their way without us. We found that, while Birg is a little lower than Piz Gloria, the views were more impressive and we ended up liking it more. We ate lunch on the hanging ledge and watched the clouds form and fade over the mountains on the other side of the valley. One last picture of me jumping on the platform, and we headed back down to Murren. Over all, we think the views up there were nice, but it certainly wasn’t worth $125, especially when we could have hiked to Birg later in the week (they opened the trail half way through our stay), and seen the same views for much cheaper.
Once we made our way back down to Murren we took off for a four hour hike on the North Face Trail. Like I said before, these trails will be practically impossible to describe, so make sure to check out our pictures on our Facebook page when they're up. Wildflowers covered the ground just about everywhere we went. We walked through cow pastures with nothing standing between us and the great beasts (some even got a little more friendly than I would have liked and followed us around. One even licked my arm! I've never understood the fear of horses that some people have, but I think I get it now- I was fairly terrified of these giant animals as they walked inches behind me, their giant cowbells constantly dinging on their necks! Yikes!). The dramatic sky changed continuously from dark gray to bright blue to quilted white. We stopped every 10 feet to take a picture, admire the stunning backdrop of snowy peaks, and listen to the wind whip down the mountain faces and whoosh through the valley below. At the end of the hike we found a little surprise - a zip line swing about 25 meters long! I couldn't resist it and launched myself off the wooden platform a few times, laughing as I flew down the line and careened into the cushions at the end of it.
We did three other big hikes during the week - the Mountain View Trail, which is pretty self-explanatory, and two bigger ones - Tanzbodeli, and Sprutz to Wasenegg. Tanzbodeli was grueling - an intensely steep climb (one of the steepest in the area) up a mountain to the Tanzbodeli plateau (fun fact: Tanzbodeli apparently means "dance floor"), but oh MAN was it worth it! The view from the top was just…perfect. We made the ascent to the plateau in about 3 hours, just in time to enjoy lunch and catch a time-lapse video of the storm clouds rolling in. As we danced around the "Dance Floor", we ran into another couple, Lauren and Dom, who were on their way to Murren, about to make the descent to Gimmelwald. Lauren and Dom were on their honeymoon and hiking all over the Jungfrau region, having their luggage sent from place to place so they didn’t have to carry it with them (genius!) We snapped a few shots for them and they made their way down the mountain.
Just as we finished our lunch, the rain started to fall - it was time for us to hightail it down the steep mountain before the real downpour started! It was certainly a tough climb up, but I was more worried about coming back down! Without trekking poles and actual hiking shoes (though my Nike's did hold up just fine), my legs were burning by the time we got back. Our decent took a little over 2 hours and I only slipped on my butt 4 times (not bad for slippery terrain and running shoed). We actually caught up to Dom and Lauren just as we were making it back to Gimmelwald and invited them in for a beer. The four of us ended up chatting for several hours over beers, a bottle of Eger Star that I'd been carrying since Budapest, and dinner. We loved getting to know them - she is a doctor who just finished med school, and he is getting his master in psychology, specifically studying how infants and children learn. Lauren and Dom are great fun and we really hope to see them again!
Our last big hike for the week took us to the Sprutz waterfall, where we walked behind the rushing water and out the other side, up the back side of another mountain, and down the Wasenegg Ridge. From the ridge, we could clearly see Piz Gloria and Birg off one side, and Tanzbodeli on the other. For a moment we though we heard thunder and wind, but saw off in the distance several small avalanches on the highest peaks. We watched the snow fall from one cliff to another as we ate our sandwiches. This hike was definitely my favorite of the trip.
Since we were there for so long, we were lucky to have a couple days to relax. While we spent one day hanging around the hostel (recovering the day after our Tanzbodeli climb), we spent the other walking around the valley floor in Lauterbrunnen. It also happened to be June 10, our "3 month travel-versary", so we treated ourselves to an incredible lunch of creamy fondue at Hotel Oberland. I've only had fondue a few times, and it's been ok, but WOW this stuff was incredible! A giant pot of melted deliciousness was placed in front of us, followed by a basket of fresh bread, and tiny cups of mushrooms, onions, garlic, and chives to dip. We washed it all down with weiss beer (of course) and took our time savoring each bite. We walked back down to the gondola, watching paragliders land on the grass and base jumpers leap from the cliff above. This is one crazy place.
Besides all of the exploring, we really loved meeting so many fun people. The first half of the week we had a big, outgoing group that we clicked with instantly! Along with having fun with Alexa and Linda, we also made new friends:
- Liz and Alex, two hilarious 21 year old girls traveling around Europe together. They used to work at Disneyworld, so we had tons of questions for them. (Fun Fact: apparently if a Disney cast member tells you to have a "magical day", it's basically their way of saying "F you".)
- Eve and Denis, an adventurous couple taking a few weeks to explore Switzerland. The day the left, they had one extra potato that they didn’t eat, so Eve drew a face on him and we all named him Steve. Good ol' Steve made it to Bern with them and even made it on Facebook.
Mid-stay, the whole crew of guests turned over- all of our new friends checked out to continue their adventures, and new guests checked in. At first, we didn't like the new vibe. For some reason, the place just wasn’t gelling like it had been. Perhaps these new people were a bit more timid? We didn't know what it was, all we knew was that the energy had changed. We sat back and watched for a little bit that first day (it happened to be our relaxing day at the hostel), and realized we were contributing to the less friendly vibe, so we jumped right in- "What hike are you thinking of doing? Did you just arrive? Where are you from? Do you need trail suggestions?" This was always the best way in to a new conversation, "Do you need trail suggestions". It was the perfect way to start a conversation and worked every time! Soon we found ourselves with a whole new group of friends who turned out to be just as fun as the others! In this group, we had:
- Anna and Gannon, a brother and sister traveling for a few weeks after a big vacation with their parents. Anna just graduated and Gannon will start his senior year at Michigan in the fall. These thrill seekers (they went bungee jumping off a dam! Eeek!) were hilarious to chat with. They were only there for a night, but we had fun recommending a nice big hike for them.
- Lizzie and Ross, an astoundingly funny couple who just graduated from Tulane. We had fun talking about the similarities in large Asian tour groups that we experienced, traveling, and our families.
- Ruthi and Hamza, another young couple recently out of school (within the last couple of years). Ruthie is from Boston, and her boyfriend Hamza is from Stockholm. They met while he was working in the States and are on a trip for about 6 weeks throughout Europe. Hamza is hoping to move back to the states for work soon so they can be closer together.
- Dylan, Nicole, Genevieve, and Brendan were our roommates for three nights, and from San Francisco! It was nice to share a room with someone who knew exactly what I was talking about when I said I was craving Tacolicious! They even left us a cute note the day they checked out. Through some instagram stalking, I was able to find them and friend them on Facebook. #socialmediastalking
With this second crew, I even got to play a game I've been carrying around for three months! Taking the advice of two of my friends (Thanks Juliet and Jess!), I picked up an easy dice game called Left Right Center for the trip. We hadn't really had a place to play it yet, and this was finally our chance! To be honest, the game, by itself, is pretty boring - you roll the dice and pass chips to the left, right, or center until someone is left with only one chip. That person wins and gets the pot. When the pot is just plastic chips, it's not very thrilling. But when the pot has a few coins, a chocolate bar, and whatever other goodies people bring to the table, well that's way more fun! With our new friends, we invented a rule for the game - all players must ante up something for the pot, anything of value like food, stickers, buttons, money, whatever!
There just has to be some kind of personal stake in the game. With our new rule, we played many loud rounds, eating bowls of popcorn that I had made for the whole dining room, and laughing until it was time for bed. We loved sitting around the dining room with these guys, chatting about the hikes we were all doing, about traveling in general, and about our lives back home. Not many people have been to Mountain Hostel, let alone the Jungfrau region in general, so I think it's pretty neat to be able to share this incredibly special place with such adventurous, energetic, and wonderful people. We hope to stay in touch with all of them and would love to meet up again!
On our last morning, we savored our breakfast and the gorgeous view out the window. As I was loading up my plate with Petra's fresh baked bread and Nutella, she asked me "Have you been here before?" No, we hadn't. "How did you know to book so many nights?" she asked. I simply told her, "Because we knew we'd love it". I explained we're on a long trip and she quickly offered us a deal- stay for a month and help clean for 1.5 hours every day, and get free room and board. What a tempting offer! If we weren't booked up already through mid-July, we would totally do it! I explained our lack of flexibility at the moment and she shared her philosophy with me, "That's too bad. That's how everyone travels now. Twenty years ago people would come and stay for a month or two, now people stay for two nights and go. No one communicates anymore, they don't connect; everyone is always on Facebook and on their phones. Everyone is so planned, there's room for spontaneity." She also explained that she hates when people just spend their time on the internet all day instead of connecting with fellow travelers and/or enjoying the beautiful scenery outdoors. We told her we understand and do our best to put the phones away and the computer down, but that we use it for our blog and to post pictures on Facebook to keep everyone informed. "What happened to going on a trip for three weeks and then having everyone over to your house to see pictures and tell stories when you get back? When you get back now it's like 'oh hey you're back' because they already know. They've already seen your pictures." Fair enough- she just wants people to connect with each other and enjoy the beauty around them. I get it. I like it. And yet here I am posting this blog and updating Facebook with new statuses and pictures. Petra has a lot of wisdom from here years running Mountain Hostel. She meets tons of people and sees travel trends come and go. I would love to go back someday, take her up on her offer to work in exchange for room and board, and pick her brain about connection, communication, and hospitality. Oh, and to get more of her delicious hot chocolate with fresh whipped cream (thanks for that, Petra!).
We took the gondola back down to the valley floor with our friends, Ruthi and Hamza, and said our goodbyes at the bottom. They jumped on the bus to catch their train to Munich (awesome!), and we took our time walking along the river to town. On our way, we took Lauren and Dom's suggestion to stop at the milk vending machine. What? A milk vending manchine?? Sure enough, there it was - for 1 frank you get a liter of the freshest milk I've ever seen (the cows that it came from were across the street!). We took our time drinking the ice cold, creamy goodness - no 1 or 2 % business here, this was the full fat real deal (and I think it was probably unpasturized, too. And no, we did not have any gastrointestinal problems later). This was definitely the best milk I've ever had. Yum!
All in all, Gimmelwald is a magical place. We're so glad that the weather worked in our favor (it barely rained, and when it did it wasn't a problem), and that most of the trails we wanted to see were open. While we were worried that seven nights would be far too long, we'd would be happy to stay much, much longer! Now I know what Rick Steves was talking about when he said, "If Heaven ain't what it's cracked up to be, take me back to Gimmelwald." We will certainly be returning to this gorgeous place and this perfect hostel. It really felt like a vacation from our vacation.