Saturday, July 3, 2010

Switzerland Serendipity

...from a photographer's notebook

Eiger-Mönch-Jungfrau Massif  ©Steve Ember                                                        

I am probably guilty of some pretty heavy use of the word “serendipity.”  But so many of my most fondly remembered travel experiences – and their associated photographs – would not have happened were it not for that funny-sounding word sharing the travel see-saw with careful planning.

Take Switzerland, for example…

Considering my passion for photographing rugged Alpine settings, it might sound strange that it took me about 25 years of running hundreds of rolls of Kodachrome, Ektachrome, Fujichrome, Agfachrome through a bunch of cameras before my first “meeting” with the Swiss Alps!

And it wasn’t even what I’d call a well planned visit.  Firstly, the trip in 1988 was shorter than my typical European visits – I think it was only eight days in length.  The intent was to visit Paris for a few days, and then ride the TGV for the first time, to make my first visit to Switzerland.

The time in Paris kept getting extended for reasons that are best briefly summed up by that old expression “Cherchez la femme!” Well, la femme turned out not to be as interested in cherchez-ing moi, and I realized if I was going to see Switzerland at all, I’d best allez-myself-en, tout-de-suite.

As I was doing some photography of the vicinity around the Paris Opéra, I noticed a Swiss Government Travel Office. Let’s call that Serendipity No. 1, not for its discovery, but for what occurred inside.

With great embarrassment, I explained to the gentleman my plight – namely that I now had only a short time left on my trip for a visit to Switzerland, that I had to be back in Paris in two days for my return flight, and that I was in need of guidance as to the best way to accomplish this in a way that would provide the best introduction in terms of Alpine photography.

I mentioned he was a gentleman. Without making me feel like the inept travel planner I knew I was guilty of being at that moment, he suggested Interlaken as being the best target, for its central location amidst some quite impressive Alpine sights.  Honoring my desire to experience the high-speed TGV, he worked out my rail itinerary, TGV from Paris to a little spot called Frasne, where I’d board a Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) train to Bern. Transfer at Bern to another train for the short trip to Interlaken.

My Swiss advisor told me that, at that time of year, late September, there’d be no problem finding a hotel in Interlaken and that there were many lodgings in close proximity to the centrally located main station, Interlaken-West – where I’d get off.

Now the trip from Bern to Interlaken starts to get very scenic at Thun. From there, through Spiez and on to Interlaken, it closely follows the lovely Thunersee (Lake Thun). And as we sped along, I began to see those impressive Swiss Alps in the distance.

The SBB car in which I was riding had those “pull-down” windows that make a photographer’s heart leap in rapture.  My fellow passengers seemed not to mind, so I was a happy camper with my new Canon EOS-620 auto-focus SLR, purchased for just such applications, as well as my trusty Nikons.

So involved was I in my photography that, as we rolled into Interlaken-West, I realized there’d not be enough time to put my gear away, gather up my bags, and disembark.  But that was OK, as I knew the train would terminate at a station called Interlaken-Ost (East), just a few minutes down the track at the other end of town, and I’d not run the risk of forgetting any of my belongings in the haste of rushing to get off. And, besides, I could take a taxi back to where all the hotels were.

And now, for Serendipity No.2…

I knew nothing about Interlaken-Ost station other than it being the end of the line for my train.  I had no idea that, in addition to it being the terminus for the standard gauge mainline, it was a magical gateway for the narrow gauge trains that call at villages along the Brienzer-See (Lake Brienz) on their way to the Brünig Pass and Luzern…or meander through the mountain valleys and provide access to the higher mountain villages, and even the Jungfraujoch at some 11,000 feet worth of altitude.

Nor did I know that the view from Interlaken-Ost was not only a colorful assortment of trains and rolling stock I’d never before seen (yes, I am a rail-fan if you hadn’t already surmised), but that the station sits in the shadow of the mighty Eiger-Mönch-Jungfrau massif.
I in fact had no idea that towering mass of semi-cloud wrapped Alpine majesty was the mighty triad that dominates the Jungfrau-Region of the Bernese Alps. What I remember feeling, however, was this sense of wonderment at finally coming face to face with those Swiss Alps.
So, between photographing the colorful assortment of mainline and narrow gauge mountain trains at this busy station, as well as those towering peaks, I suppose an hour or more had slipped by, and I still had not snagged a hotel room for my stay in Interlaken.

As I contemplated whether to find a taxi or walk back to the central part of Interlaken, I began to pay a bit more attention to the charming looking rose colored building that stood just across the street from the station. 

Serendipity No.3…

It was a hotel…right there at the station, and it certainly looked inviting, to say nothing of convenient.  The sign said Hotel du Lac.  And a room was available.  This was my first taste of that wonderful friendly and efficient Swiss hospitality I’d heard about. My comfortable room was a train- and mountain lover’s dream as it gave a higher viewpoint of the activity at Interlaken-Ost as well as those imposing mountains I’d admired from track-side. 

One I’d freshened up, I went downstairs to speak to the friendly folks who had checked me in and get some guidance as to the best ways to spend my too brief first visit to the Alps. The Hotel du Lac is owned and operated by the Hofmann family, and Herr Hofmann could not have been more helpful in helping me plan some good itineraries based on my railroading and Alpine photography interests.

For that afternoon, he suggested I relax with a nice meal in their restaurant overlooking the Aare River and then to take the late afternoon cruise on Lake Brienz, which would depart from the hotel’s dock. It was one of those perfect late September afternoons, and I followed his suggestions, including getting off the lake steamer at Brienz to ride up the Rothorn mountain on the Brienzer Rothornbahn train, and then return to Interlaken on the narrow gauge line that follows the shore of the Brienzersee.

The next day was just as photo-perfect, allowing a higher-altitude visual feast – the first visit to Mürren – and Piz Gloria!

The village of Mürren sits at an altitude of 5,400 feet, on a mountain ledge, high above the Lauterbrunnen Valley.  The valley floor is 2,624 below.  Mürren is traffic-free – as in: you can’t get there by automobile.  The only wheeled conveyances are electric vehicles for transporting luggage to and from the hotels…and little red wagons, so kids can transport groceries. 

There are but two ways to reach Mürren, assuming you’re not a hawk. I’ve tried them both (on different visits), and I recommend them both!

On this first visit, the itinerary was the Berner-Oberland-Bahn narrow gauge train from Interlaken-Ost, via Wilderswil, to Lauterbrunnen.  From the Lauterbrunnen station, one boards an incline railway (funicular) train for the (maximum 60% gradient!) climb up to Grütschalp.  Well, at least that’s what was there in 1988, the time of my first visit.  The funicular was, shall we say, rustic, but rustic in a Swiss way (read: noisy and not terribly comfortable, but entirely safe).  Since then, however, the steep rocky slope into which the incline cog-rail tracks were set was deemed unstable, mandating the end of the funicular, in favor of an aerial cableway covering the same distance. I can only imagine the cable car giving even more impressive views of the Alpine splendor than were possible when riding the funicular, and I intend to try it on my next visit.

The third stage of this journey is from Grütschalp to Mürren via narrow gauge electric railcar of the Bergbahn Lauterbrunnen-Mürren (BLM), although a hike along this plateau ledge affords numerous views of the rugged peaks of the Berner Oberland if you’d prefer to carefully set up your shots. And if you should tire along the way, there is a mid-point station for the railway at Winteregg.

I mentioned there are two ways to get up to Mürren.  The other is the breathtaking Schilthorn Bahn cable car ascent from Stechelberg, also in the Lauterbrunnen Valley.  Stechelberg can be reached from the Lauterbrunnen train station by Post Bus.  It’s just a short ride from Lauterbrunnen, and these buses are coordinated with the train schedules such that, if you can’t get there by train, the bus will get you there, and there’s usually a bus leaving within minutes of your train’s arrival. As the large and comfortable cable car begins its ascent from Stechelberg, I know you’ll be smiling.

Here is a photo taken on a subsequent visit capturing the enchanting Winter Wonderland view of the Lauterbrunnen Valley from the intermediate station at Gimmelwald. Just had to come back and see that rugged Alpine splendor in Winter’s lovely dress.  See why I love the Schilthorn Bahn?

That same Schilthorn  Bahn will take you high above Mürren to – where else? – the top of the Schilthorn, perhaps better known from a certain James Bond movie as Piz Gloria.  More on that destination in a bit. (Bring your appetite along!)

Back to Mürren, where the view across the valley is stunning.  That same majestic Eiger-Mönch-Jungfrau Massif I’d admired from my window at the Hotel du Lac and the platforms of Interlaken-Ost station takes on another dimension when viewed from higher up, along Mürren’s main street or from one of the hotel terraces looking out over the Lauterbrunnen Valley.

Mürren lies north-to-south on that aforementioned mountain ledge.  If one is merely visiting for the day, it would make sense to arrive via the Lauterbrunnen-Grütschalp-BLM connection and to depart via the Schilthorn Bahn cable car back down to the valley floor at Stechelberg, Post Bus back to Lauterbrunnen for the train connections to Interlaken or other points in the Berner Oberland. But…if you ride the Schilthorn Bahn cable car only between Mürren and Stechelberg, you will miss half (or more!) of the breathtaking vistas of the Berner Oberland, including the view from the terrace at Piz Gloria at 9,744 feet…or the hearty deftig fare in the revolving restaurant, which presents a 360 degree view of the surrounding peaks in the span of an hour.  And, yes, there is something, oh, romantic about enjoying that “stirred, not shaken” Martini with your meal as you glide ever so slowly past the window that says “007” while savoring the breathtaking (Have I used that word too often? I offer no apology!) panorama of Swiss Alpine grandeur.

If anything I’ve written implies Mürren is merely a day-part excursion, that is not my intent.  I relate merely the experiences of my first visit and a subsequent brief return with some friends. My intention is to experience Mürren again for at least a few days, staying in one of her inviting hotels, so as to take in – and photograph – the mountains in all their moods, from sunrise to Alpenglow.

Naturally, the D-SLR will be at hand, but those 20 rolls of Kodachrome-25 in my freezer, as well as a similar number of rolls of Agfa-Pan 25 black and white deserve something really special to excite their fine-grained emulsions, especially the K-25 that the one remaining Kodachrome lab (in the world!) will stop processing at the end of 2010.  Seems this is the time for that hoped for return to my beloved Swiss Alps…including that little mountain gem called Mürren.

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Blogger alexa said...

wow. what a great story steve! having spent lots of time in germany and bavaria and some in the swiss alps, it really made me want to return. you paint a vivid photograph, if you can stand the mis-use of words.

July 3, 2010 at 10:01 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Lieber Steve
Ich habe dein Schreiben übersetzen lassen.
ich habe dich verstanden.
nun zu den 3 Billetten 3 Fahrten mit dem Dampfzug, ich habe reserviert weil der Dampfzug nur etwa 3x im jahr diese Strecke Reichenau Diesentis fährt. Für 3 Personen habe ich reserviert ein ticket für mein Ehemann für dich und ich. Mein Ehemann hat dann Ferien und wir wollten diese tour schon lange machen.
Wir holen dich gerne in Chur beim Bahnhof ab wenn du genau weisst wenn du kommst.
aber wir haben erst April bis zum 2 Oktober bekommen wir das schon hin. Und wir freuen uns auf deinen besuch bei uns.
Zur zeit besuche ich einen english Sprachkurs.
Ich war einmal 3 Monate in Maiami und habe english gelernt, nur leider kann ich nicht mehr so gut english. Bis im Oktober lerne ich dazu.
a liaba gruass
Beatrice und Rudolf Meier in Tamins

April 25, 2011 at 2:58 PM  

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