The train from Interlaken shadows the road and the river to Wilderswill. Vistas of Alpine scenery unfold in cinematic slow motion. The cliffs close in on either side as you reach Zweilutschinen. Suddenly the valley opens up, broad and incredibly picturesque. A chocolate-box green valley straight out of a travel poster, dotted with about seventy waterfalls, lush green pastures with the famous satisfied-looking Swiss cows, and snow covered mountains imposing their rugged bulks into a blue sky! Lauterbrunnen is a small alpine village near Interlaken in the Bernese Oberland region. It’s set in a deep glacial valley with rock walls 500 meters high and waterfalls plummeting down. Interlaken is a typical tourist town and well known but if you want true Alpine country, folks this is it!
We see rugged cliffs and rock faces punctuated by serpentine waterfalls, snow covered peaks gleaming in the sun and the cuckoo-clock chalets with window boxes filled with geraniums and piles of neatly stacked firewood. In the distance is the gravity defying cog-wheel railway to Jungfraujoch. We have rented a chalet-apartment from a British owner and managed by a friendly local lady. She gives us a wealth of local information and invaluable nuggets like where to get freshly baked bread and croissants for our breakfasts and the best Rosti in town! As we walk into our apartment, still a little skeptical of what our money could buy in Switzerland, we inspect the cabinets and open up everything in sight. We find fluffy comforters, board –games, local guide-books, a fully-equipped kitchen and French doors that open out into a balcony with a simply awe-inspiring view of the mountains. We open the tap and drink the pure Alpine glacier fed water-we can really get addicted to this!
AN ODE TO BEAUTY
The word Lauterbrunnen is derived from German for ‘many springs’ though looking at the cascading waterfalls some think that it is derived from lauter( loud)! This region has inspired poets, writers and artists over centuries. The famous German writer Goethe, who lived in the parish home here, composed his poem ‘Songs of the spirits over the waters’ on seeing the Staubbach Falls, the highest waterfalls in Switzerland. It reads ‘the soul of the man is like water. It comes from heaven and rises again to heaven……’ and when I look at this lacy curtain-like falls from the village, I realize that its milky white waters still have the power to overwhelm! The water crashes down an inky black rock-face and dissolves into misty spray. We follow a zigzag path and emerge on a ledge behind the cascade here! Byron, the great English poet compared the Staubbach Falls to ‘the tail of the pale horse ridden by death in the Apocalypse’-a rather romantic notion, but at night when it is illuminated, I am inclined to agree!
WORLD HERITAGE SITE
The other arrow in Lauterbrunnen’s quiver is the Trummelbach Falls, a World Heritage site. This drains the glacier run-offs of the Eiger, Monch and the Jungfrau .It is said that the volume of water is around 20,000 litres of water per second! This is an extraordinary sight even in this valley known as the valley of Waterfalls! It’s the only glacial waterfalls which is accessible from inside the mountain (those Swiss engineers!). We take a tunnel lift (similar to the one used by miners) to the top of the canyon after which you have to take some turns and twists to see the series of waterfalls. One of the waterfalls is called the Corkscrew because of its back and forth swivel! There are a number of illuminated galleries and it’s always a good idea to take a windcheater along to protect yourself from the galaxy of excited drops. It’s an exhilarating and deafening experience and extremely unique.
Behind our apartment is a camping ground with mobile homes and hostels. Busloads of Contiki youth travellers are enjoying the setting and cooling their drinks in the ice-cold waters of the Lutschine River! We watch hang-gliders soaring aloft in the wind currents and landing behind our apartments. Lauterbrunnen is a base for adventure and extreme sports like hang-gliding, canyonning, skydiving, skiing and base jumping off the cliffs. The lush mountain air is perfumed with the sweet smell of hay and wildflowers. At night we hear the rattle of the windows in the wind and the symphony of bells from the celebrated Swiss cows which seems to be the theme song of the next few days! For centuries, Swiss herdsmen have taken their cattle to the Alps (pastures) where the cows have grazed and grown fat to give the great milk which makes Swiss chocolate and cheese truly special! We walk through the small not-quite -town, with its bevy of cafes, backpackers’ hostels, grocery stores abuzz with hikers and craggy-faced climbers, pizzerias and cheese fondue restaurants. It is amazingly litter-free! Swiss laws require everyone to recycle as much rubbish as possible. Rubbish has to be put into special tax paid sacks and then dropped into the bins! There is a Church in the town centre, it was originally built in 1487, and the huge bell that adorned it still stands in front of the newer church today. We pass the centuries-old graveyard- probably the most scenic graveyard that I have seen! The mountains look respectfully in the distance and the only sounds are of falling water and the occasional Post Bus. The Swiss tend to the graves of loved ones and deck them with flowers as if to say that we are connected for ever.
NATURE AT IT’S BEST
We make Lauterbrunnen our base and make day trips to Bern, Basel and of course the have-to-do Jungfraujoch. The trip to Lucerne on the Golden Panoramic Pass train is spectacular. We take an indulgent cruise on Lake Thunersee and visit the medieval town of Thun with its castle plucked straight out of a fairy tale. The scenic alternatives in the valley itself are countless! We take the funicular, 2200 vertical feet up the hillside, to Murren, a car- free town perched precariously above the valley. Here the air is so pure that it’s almost medicinal. There are more cows here than people! From here we take the cable-car to Schilthorn where there is a revolving restaurant which is solar-powered called the Piz Gloria. This was the scene of James Bond’s death- defying antics in ‘On her majesty’s Secret Service’. There are loads of Japanese and Indian tourists here vying for a good view but the grey skies are sullen!
For a glimpse into the rural history of Switzerland, we visit the open-air Museum at Ballenberg near Brienz. This outdoor museum spread over more than 2000 acres showcases authentic Swiss rural structures (some almost 100 years old) and native farm animals. Almost 100 farmhouses from every canton in Switzerland were dismantled and painstakingly re-assembled on this site. It has a region-by region display of Swiss country life and demonstrations of local crafts like lace-making, forging and cheese-making.
The valley offers more than 120 miles of marked trails with perfect ‘Heidi’ scenery! There are cellulite-busting walks here and thank heavens for the funiculars and boats and trains and post-buses all made possible by our Swiss pass! But it is Lauterbrunnen that is home away from home. Its the place where we settle down with a glass of Red, bite into a Co-op ‘ready-to-eat piazza’ and watch the evening show-the Alps bathed in the orange glow, farmers leading brass- belled cows back to their homes for the night, goats behind rough fences and the floodlit Staubbach falls. It’s the place where we have the quintessential Swiss experience of Cheese Fondue and Rosti in a small, cozy family-run restaurant. Even simple pleasures seem more enjoyable in view of the Alps!
Its 10 PM, the sky’s still a deep indigo; as we watch the landscape, we see a flurry of movement. This is avalanche territory and we experience the power of nature at all times. We are surrounded by the notorious trio Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau, some of the most formidable and spectacular mountain landscapes on earth. Lauterbrunnen is about replenishing lungs with healthy air, restoring the senses and experiencing life at a slower pace. With a good map, some comfortable walking shoes and a sense of adventure, Lauterbrunnen is a chance to detox!
Published in the New Woman, 2009