Europe 2022 - Part 1: Bernese Oberland
This is the first part of what will probably be a three-part series on our trip to Germany and Switzerland in September 2022.
I should start by saying, for the first four months leading up to this trip, we were actually planning a different trip. Way back in April we had booked an 8-day Rhine river cruise from Amsterdam to Basel, Switzerland, with a couple extra days on either end to explore Amsterdam and the Interlaken area of Switzerland.
Fast forward to about three weeks before the trip and we decided that we really needed the flexibility to come back early if necessary, due to some things going on in our lives at the time. With the all-inclusive nature of the river cruise, we would have had to forfeit the remainder of the trip in the event that we disembarked early. Not ideal.
Thankfully our cruise line was still offering a 100% refund (as a voucher) if we cancelled at least two weeks before departure, so with a day to spare we called and cancelled both the cruise and the other arrangements we had already made. Oh, did I mention our flights were also booked through the cruise company? We both still wanted to take some sort of trip to the region, but we now had about two weeks to find flights, plan out an itinerary, and book accommodations for the whole trip. No big deal right?
After a lot of iteration, we settled on flying nonstop from Portland to Frankfurt on Condor. After spending our first night in Frankfurt we would head to Interlaken (Switzerland) for 3 nights, then a short stop in Zurich for 1 night before continuing on to Munich for 3 nights. Finally, we would head from Munich back to Frankfurt for one last night before flying back home. All of our intercity connections would be via train using the excellent Eurail pass and the companion smartphone app.
This was our first experience flying Condor and I was apprehensive based on some of the complaints I had read online. I am happy to report however that the flights were...fine. Condor is certainly not competing to offer the most luxurious product in the skies and they do fly older planes, but given that they are one of only three airlines (four if you count Icelandair) offering non-stop service from Portland to Europe, "fine" is good enough for me!
We landed on time in Frankfurt, made it through passport control and customs pretty quickly, searched (in vain) for a water fountain in the airport, caught the S-Bahn to the city center and walked about 10 minutes to get to our hotel.
By now it was dinner time and as tempting as it was to crawl into bed right then, we dragged ourselves back out to find food and explore the city a bit.
After a quick breakfast at our Frankfurt hotel, we boarded the 12:50 PM Deutsche Bahn Intercity Express train for Interlaken, Switzerland via Basel, Switzerland. Our train arrived in Basel just before 4 and we were ready for "lunch." With the frequent train service between Basel and Interlaken, we decided to disembark, store our luggage in a train station locker, and spend a couple hours eating and exploring Basel before continuing on to Interlaken.
A single "Large" size locker could store all our stuff, so for 10 CHF we could hop off the train and explore a new city!
Basel sits along the Rhine River at the intersection of the borders of Switzerland, Germany, and France and is considered to be Switzerland's cultural capital. It is home to the oldest public art museum in the world (which opened in 1661!) and has a functional city center that gently tumbles downhill from the train station to the river.
After eating a grab-and-go lunch at the train station, we walked down to the riverbank and took in the view. After following the surprisingly precipitous waterfront path up to the next bridge, it was time to head back to the train station and continue on to Interlaken. Don't worry Basel, we'll be back some day!
Finding accommodations in Interlaken on short notice was probably the most challenging part of booking this trip. Most of the hotels and guest houses we were interested in were already fully booked for our dates. After a lot of searching, we ended up booking accomodations at "The 5th Floor @ Hotel Interlaken" which we found by happenstance after checking availability for the main Hotel Interlaken website. Because the rooms don't all have a private bathroom (ours did not) and the building's elevator terminates at the 4th floor, the hotel decided to book the 5th floor as a separate property.
Neither of those drawbacks were dealbreakers for us and the nightly rate was very reasonable so we rolled the dice and booked the room, and it turned out to be a great choice.
The hotel was beautiful, the staff were all lovely, the room and shared bathroom were both extremely clean and well tended to, and our nightly rate even included breakfast every day. Being from the United States, I have very low expectations for free hotel breakfasts, but the buffet offering at Hotel Interlaken was excellent! We ate breakfast every day while looking out onto the beautiful Interlaken Japanese Garden. (See below.)
We stayed in Interlaken for 3 nights and used it as our home base for 2 full days of exploring the area.
Lake Brienz & Giessbach
Interlaken, as the name suggests, sits between two large alpine lakes. Thunersee (Lake Thun) to the west, and Brienzersee (Lake Brienz) to the east. Each lake is criss-crossed by a comfortable and efficient water taxi service. After a relaxed breakfast at our hotel, we made the short walk over to the Interlaken Ost ferry dock and departed at 12:07 PM headed out onto Lake Brienz.
Lake Brienz is a stunningly beautiful turquoise color, surrounded on all sides by thickly forested slopes and bucolic lowland pastures dotted with chalets and cabins. The photo below is straight out of my phone, the water really is that color!
Our destination for the afternoon was the Giessbach River which flows from the slopes of the Schwarzhorn, down a seemingly endless series of cascades and waterfalls, before finally emptying into Lake Brienz. Collectively, these cascades are known as Giessbach Falls. In 1874, some savvy entrepreneurs built the Grandhotel Giessbach which commands views of both the falls (which are illuminated at night) and Lake Brienz.
Once we disembarked the ferry, we followed a steeply switchbacking trail past waterfall after waterfall until we finally reached Schweibenalp at an elevation of 1062 meters.
Wanting to make sure we didn't miss the return ferry, we headed back down the trail towards the hotel. Because the hotel sits about 100m above the level of the lake, a funicular railway known as the Giessbachbahn was constructed in 1879 which connects the ferry dock and the hotel.
We got caught in a tremendous thunderstorm while waiting for and then riding the funicular down to the ferry terminal. The timing was fortuitous since we were done hiking but not yet exposed out on the lake! Thankfully the storm passed in a matter of minutes and we got to enjoy some beautiful rainbows on our ferry ride back to Interlaken.
Grindelwald & Lauterbrunnen
For our second day in the Bernese Oberland, we headed into the mountains. Our destinations were the parallel alpine valleys of Grindelwald and Lauterbrunnen. Both valleys are served by the Berner Oberland-Bahn (Bernese Oberland Railway) which is a private rail operator and thus, not included in the Eurail system. (However, Eurail pass holders do receive a discount on tickets, so be sure to mention it at the ticket office!)
After another great hotel breakfast, we walked the short distance back up to the Interlaken Ost train station and rode the scenic train up to Grindelwald. As soon as you step off the train in Grindelwald you are confronted by the towering presence of the Eiger and the Mättenberg mountains looming over you.
We considered riding the cable car up to First for some alpine hiking but a combination of uncertain weather conditions and the high cost of tickets dissuaded us. Instead, we decided to take the nearby Pfingsteggbahn cable car partway up the Mättenberg and hike down. The cable car ride was just a few minutes long but provided some wonderful views of the valley below.
Once we arrived at Pfingstegg, we rode a fun little mountain toboggan and took in the views for a few minutes before starting our hike back down to Grindelwald.
It had been rainy and cloudy in the morning so we weren't sure what kind of views we would have of the mountains, but we ended up having great (and highly dynamic) conditions. Sometimes it was clear and sunny and everything in the valley seemed to glow in blues and greens. Other times the clouds closed in and just added to the drama of the peaks surrounding us.
After another late "lunch" in Grindelwald, it was time to head over the ridge to the Lauterbrunnen Valley. From Grindelwald we walked about a mile through pasture land to the Grindelwald Terminal, a brand new (as of 2019) modern terminal for two of the more popular cableways in the area. We rode the Grindelwald-Männlichen gondola which, when it first opened in 1978, was the longest passenger-carrying gondola cableway in the world at 6,071 meters. This line was fully refurbished in 2019 as part of a larger project that included the new Grindelwald Terminal building as well as the brand new Eiger Express cableway.
The views as we ascended out of the Grindelwald Valley were spectacular, with passing clouds and the occasional rain showers just adding to the other-worldly ambience.
The sun decided to come out about the time we reached the top of the ridge at Männlichen and produced the most vibrant double rainbow I have ever seen. It was truly stunning and the photo below doesn't even do it justice.
Männlichen itself consists of two gondola terminals about a 5 minute walk apart and a hotel in between. In the winter, this is the summit of a large ski area, but in the summer it seems to mostly just be a transfer point, although there was a couple getting married at the hotel as we walked past.
We thought the gondola ride up from Grindelwald was going to be the highlight of our day, but it turns out it was really just an appetizer for an even more stunning gondola ride from Männlichen down to the village of Wengen.
The Luftseilbahn Wengen-Männlichen (Wengen–Männlichen Aerial Cableway) was first opened in 1954 to provide direct access from Wengen to the Männlichen ski and hiking area. In 1993 the cableway was fully rebuilt (apart from the stations) and most recently, the two cars were replaced in 2018. That last part is particularly notable because one of the features of the new cars is that, during the summer, they have a rooftop balcony. A balcony! On a cable car! A cable car that traverses almost 1,000 vertical meters over the course of a 5 minute ride! I mean, I guess that's worth the 5 CHF extra per person it costs to ride up there?
I think if I simply tried to describe the view presented to us on our ride down to Wengen, nobody would believe that such as place existed. It looks like an idealized mountain scene from a meticulously constructed model train set, or a computer-generated landscape from a Lord of the Rings movie. I've already wasted enough words trying to even convey how useless words alone will be, so here's a picture instead.
After picking our jaws up off the roof of the cable car, we made our way to the Wengen train station and caught the short but also very scenic cogwheel train down to the town of Lauterbrunnen on the valley floor.
The Lauterbrunnen Valley deserved more time than we had left in the day but we made the most of what we had with an idyllic, hour-long walk up the valley. Along the way we just tried to take it all in, including a handful of the 72 (!) waterfalls that cascade down the sheer limestone cliffs that line both sides of the valley.
On our way back to the train station, we stopped at a cozy pub on the edge of town and picked up some take-away dinner to eat on the train ride back to Interlaken.
The next day we were off to Zurich via Lucerne, but that will have to wait until part two of our adventure. Thanks for reading! 🥾