Alps – 2/4 – Switzerland

Day 4 – continued

So after crossing the Swiss border at Saint-Gingolph, we stopped just after at a petrol station to pick up the Swiss vignette, the obligatory sticker needed for using Swiss motorways.  40€, and we thought a very good deal, as after this there are no tolls, and no toll booth queues to deal with, easy!

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Swiss Border

We continued round the lake, past the Château Chillon and through Montreux – stopping briefly for a photo above the marina with the mountain views beyond.

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Montreux

Then we headed up the motorway towards Gruyères.  Here we did it right, this beautiful but small traditional town on a hill with its castle at one end must be packed during the day, but arriving just before sunset, we parked up no problem (and no cost), and walked up into the town for a quick investigate (mainly restaurants), past the HR Giger Museum (of Alien fame), to the castle.  Watched the sun set from up there, and then back down to the car park.

 

Our overnight was to be our first free camp in Switzerland, and we headed down the valley to Moléson.  Here there is a huge car park of a cable car/toboggan run.  No problem to overnight, pretty flat, and quiet – one other motorhome there, and we felt perfectly ok overnighting here.

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Moléson car park

Day 5

The other reason we’d chosen to overnight in Moléson was because of the cheese.  Gruyères is of course synonymous with cheese, and we’d heard there was a very authentic, traditional cheese maker in Moléson where you could see that day’s batch being made at 10am every morning, the Fromagerie d’Alpage.

We joined a rather fun family group of Columbian/American/Swiss for what ended up being a very multilingual visit to the cheese maker, lots of criss crossing of translations and the poor guy actually making the cheese was completely lost I think!  Haha, great fun, and a really interesting visit watching that day’s cheese being prepared.  Of course we couldn’t leave without buying some either!

 

We then headed off back past Gruyères and off down our next valley.  Here we were sort of following a route highlighted in one of the guidebooks we’d bought on the area before the trip, the very excellent Sunflower Guide to Lake Geneva and Western Switzerland with car tours, short walks and longer walks pretty much covering the area we were intending to visit.  We made our first stop on their recommendation at the village of Rossinière.  We parked up right on the main road, outside the impressive Hotel de Ville.  We picked up some bread in the local grocers just opposite (with a little organic section – impressed!), as well as an architectural guide to the village, and grabbed our cheese maker cheese, and went for a wander around.  Lots of beautiful traditional architecture, well explained (in English) in the guide, including Le Grand Chalet, a huge traditional wooden Swiss chalet.  As recommended in the Sunflower guide, we walked up to the church and had our picnic on a bench there overlooking the village and little lake below – very picturesque!

 

We then continued up the valley through Chateau-d’Oex, and on to the village of Rougemont.  Here we parked up easily opposite the church, and went in for a quick look, which was worth it, a lovely painted church inside clearly about to host a recital that evening.

 

Then a longish drive up and down, before reaching Lake Thunersee, and then turning towards Grindelwald at Interlaken.  This was another fingers-crossed-the-campsite-has-space affair – and no problems at all, we headed up to Camping Eigernordwand which had plenty of space in its open field, great clean facilities and the most breathtaking mountain and valley views!

We settled down, awning out, chocks placed (not a particularly flat site) view over the north face of the Eiger, and did some well needed washing.

 

We decided to have a little evening walk down to the Grindelwald Grund station to check out how long it took (about 8 minutes – great) and the possibilities for the following day.  We’d decided on the Eiger Trail for the next day, downhill most of the way, and so bought our tickets at the station (ticket office shuts at 1815) in preparation.  We then decided to walk up the river a bit along a marked path through the pinewoods – but this turned out to be a little too spontaneous as after about half an hour we got seriously thundered and rained on and had to turn back, very wet and unprepared!

 

 

Day 6

We got up nice and early for our walk today.  We’d now worked out the general weather pattern – stunning blue skies in the mornings, prime mountain views and cooler walking, then cloud comes in over the peaks after lunch, then there’s the afternoon rain storm, and then everything more or less clears again.

So, we were up, at the Grindelwald Grund station, and onboard our train up to Kleine Scheidegg – the interchange point for all things Eiger/Jungfrau.

 

Here we got on another train with a special queue for those, like us, getting off at Eigergletscher – the starting point of the Eiger Trail.  And the first great closer up views of the glaciers below the Mönch and Jungfrau – we enjoyed a drink on the station restaurant terrace before starting off.

 

The Eiger Trail is a bit up and down to start with, before becoming a very pretty downhill slog.  There are fabulous views all the way in all directions, loads of wildflowers, and of course you’ve got the Eiger’s infamous north face towering over you the whole way – and offering a bit of welcome shade!  Several points on the way down with benches, and a great information board showing the north face ascent route – and the curious windows in the side of it thanks to the Jungfrau railway which goes straight through it.  We had a nice lunch on a bench about half way, before continuing down to the lower station at Alpiglen, about 3 hours, and then the train back down to Grindelwald Grund again.  Fabulous walk.

 

That afternoon we decided to walk up to Grindelwald itself to have a little explore – it’s quite a long walk up from Grund, and we would have been better off getting the bus with our tired legs after the morning walk, but it gave us an excuse to have a nice drink on the terrace of the Hotel Spinne with views over the 4,000m mountains.  We did get the bus back down though!  Oh how our legs ached!!

 

Day 7

The campsite had no problem in kindly letting us leave the van in their parking the next day – right up to late afternoon – which meant we were able to enjoy another almost full day around Grindelwald.  There’s so much to do here, you could easily spend a week.

When you stay at these extremely expensive Swiss campsites (it was just under 100 CHF for 2 nights), they do have the bonus of giving you discount cards for the valley.  Here, we’d had the bus included, discount on the First cable car had we done that, and also 50% discount on the Männlichen gondola.

The weather this morning wasn’t as good as the previous days, but we had this idea…

So the big attraction at Grindelwald is of course, besides the Eiger, the Jungfrau – and the train up to Jungfraujoch, the Top of Europe – Europe’s highest train station.  Having worked for a well known train travel company in the UK before I emigrated to Spain, I had always wanted to visit – it had been their star tour – and despite it being by far the most expensive part of the whole trip, we had to do it!  But we wanted to do it a little differently, and more interestingly.

So we started our day at the Männlichen gondola, Europe’s longest gondola (Switzerland is a land of superlatives), and bought return tickets with our 50% discount just in case the weather really turned.  We saw our first marmots from here running around below us, and reaching the top was pretty cool.

 

At the top of the Männlichen gondola is a big kids playground at 2222m!  We had a fun play – Gonzalo went bowling for the first time ever, and enjoyed views into the Lauterbrunnen valley over the other side, and a quick drink at the restaurant.

 

Then we started on the Panorama Trail – a 1hr30 walk from Männlichen gently down around the Tschuggen peak and its stunning wild flowers, towards the big three – the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau ahead of you.  Well, we started with them in the cloud, but it lifted half way for some spectacular views.

 

The walk ends at Kleine Scheidegg station again, where we bought our tickets to go up (and down) to Jungfraujoch.  We had a 2 hour wait before our train (seats must be reserved), so we had a wander around the tourist shops, and decided to have lunch on the panoramic terrace of the Hotel Eigernordwand.  It was a pretty awful menu lunch I have to be honest, but the views were amazing, and Gonzalo enjoyed a massive Swiss ice cream to top it off!

 

Then we walked back to the station and boarded our train up.  It’s a 30 minute ride through the rock (the Eiger basically), with a stop half way to get out quickly and get the view over the glacier from through the windows of the station (in the rock) at Eismeer.

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Glacier view from Eismeer station

Then you finally arrive at Jungfraujoch – Top of Europe.  But actually you’re up there with most of Asia!  There is a marked tour around the famous Sphinx building, which you’re pretty much forced to follow IKEA stylee.  It takes in various random exhibits, the Ice Cave (which is really slippery!) and takes you outside at two points into the snow for great views over the Altesch glacier (Europe’s longest), and actually out onto the glacier where you can indulge in a random selection of tamer winter sports (for those who have never seen snow before).  You can also walk from here 1 hour across the glacier to the Mönchsjung Hut.  However, on reaching the top, we discovered my limits!  Blood oxygen dropped to 70, and a mask was in order with so many people around – so we did the tour slowly and then sat and enjoyed the glacier views before heading back down.  A bit of an anitclimax on my part, but you live and learn!

 

Back down and recovered, we got back to Berta at the campsite, and decided that we couldn’t really face a long drive that day, so decided to head round to the next valley, Lauterbrunnen and a different campsite for the night.  Lauterbrunnen has a very famous, huge, well equipped campsite, but we opted instead for one a little further on, Camping Breithorn, happy to accept us for one night, and only (!) 29 CHF for the night too.  We were placed right next to a glacial torrent!  Which as constant noise, was actually fine, and we had a nice hour relaxing with the back doors open wide.

 

Then we took a gentle walk up the valley on the path alongside the torrent to unexpectedly find some great waterfalls coming down over the huge U-shaped glacial valley walls (including the Mürrenbachfall – the highest in Switzerland).

 

Day 8

We woke up the next day to a splendid morning, lovely views up the valley to the Jungfrau massif from the campsite.

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Camping Breithorn view

The other reason we’d chosen said camping was that it was within 5 minutes walk of the Trümmelbach falls.  These falls are the outpouring of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau glaciers, and thunder down through the inside of the rock – it’s really quite a spectacle for the senses.  We were able to get this in (it takes about 45 minutes) before having to leave the campsite at 11am the next morning, so didn’t have to worry about parking Berta there, although there would have been no problem.

 

We also got a great view back down to the campsite from the falls – and the huge U-shaped valley walls.

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Camping Breithorn

Then we headed off for our long drive today, we were changing valleys, and this time it involved going over our first high mountain pass – Berta’s first real test – the Grimselpass.

But we got a little side tracked on the way!  Thanks to the Sunflower guide once again, we couldn’t resist the idea of another lake swim and tranquil, flat lake walk, so we headed through Interlaken, and along the south side of Lake Brienz.  This road offers loads of places to park up (not overnight) for a swim in the lake, very tempting all the way along, but we were heading for the village of Iseltwald which we’d heard was a pretty one.  There’s a forced car park just at the entrance, sloping, and paid – but cheap, and as it didn’t give change we ended up with 4 hours for 2 CHF.

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Iseltwald

We walked down into the lakeside town, and discovered everyone waiting for a ferry to turn up.  Well, we had no real plan here, so we thought why not, lets get on the ferry!  It would give us a way to do the lakeside walk as a circuit.  So for 15 CHF each, we got the ferry which zig zagged across the lake to Geissbach – famous for its waterfalls.

 

What we didn’t realise is that from the ferry arrival point at the bottom, there is then Europe’s oldest funicular up to the falls and the Geissbach Hotel – at 10 CHF return each!  It appears you don’t have much option once the ferry’s dropped you off!  But there IS it turns out a walking path up too – we didn’t realise until afterwards.

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Geissbach funicular

And the money pit doesn’t stop there, once you’re at the top (and have come completely spontaneously unprepared) you need to eat!  The Hotel of course has a beautiful panoramic lake view terrace, but with prices to match.  The only other option was frozen pizza from a little kiosk – well, that’s what we opted for, it was edible, and nice views over the falls at least!

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Geissbach falls

Then we got back on the funicular down, and this time took the marked lakeside path back to Iseltweld.  This was beautiful, through the lakeside beechwoods with the green of the beeches and the blue of the lake – a large picnic/bbq area almost exactly half way along, and at the end on reaching Iseltwald, a fantastic free (!) swimming area with changing rooms, toilets, showers and ice cream!  We’d at least had the foresight to stuff our swimming stuff and a small towel in the bag, so we had a quick dip before our parking ran out – and the afternoon rain storm started!

 

Then we really did get on, and headed for the Grimselpass.  It was a steep one up, but interesting as the rock completely changes here, and we had a quick stop at our first mountain pass reservoir, and the summit.

 

After some smelly braking down the otherside, we decided Berta deserved a rest, and stopped in a car park just off the road at Geschinen.  Well this turned out to be a great stop!  A really authentic village with huge Swiss wooden houses and their huge grain stores – we had a great wander around.

 

Then we headed on down the valley, past Brig, and started hitting bits of the new motorway down the Valais valley.  We were heading to the village of Grimentz, up another valley south of the main Sion valley in the Valais.  It was a pretty vertiginous road up, windy even by Swiss standards, and very windy.  Our scariest drive I think, especially as night was falling and we weren’t exactly sure how this road was going to turn out!

It did turn out well though, and we arrived at the AC area in Grimentz, great, flat area overlooking the valley with the village above, 12 CHF 9pm-4pm the next day, and good Euro Relais service point too.

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AC area Grimentz

Day 9

After a good, quiet night’s sleep, we’d heard the rain falling as we woke up.  We were prepared for this, and knew that this was going to be our first real bad weather day of the trip – hence we’d decided to come up to Grimentz which we’d heard was a pretty town to spend time in anyway, and we wouldn’t miss getting the awning out and paying for a campsite.

In fact, after about an hour of rain, we were lucky for most of the rest of the day.  And it was rather atmospheric watching the cloud float up and down the valley, although we couldn’t see the snowy peaks around us.  We first wandered up to the Tourist Office to give in our parking receipt, and in return get our valley passes – giving us free access to one of the cable cars, buses, and random things…like mini golf!  Well, why not?!  So we had a wander around the town, very lovely traditional wooden houses again, overflowing with geraniums, and then had a game of mini golf with views!  I lost.  I never want to play mini golf again, but once again, you live and learn!

 

As our 4pm parking deadline approached, we left Grimentz for the moment, and headed up for a late lunch further up the valley.  To be precise, we were heading for another official AC parking area, free this time, at the foot (nearly) of the Moiry glacier.  Up past the Moiry lake, the car park of the glacier is large and has about 1/4 of it dedicated to AC parking specifically.  It’s also got toilets and an outdoor sink.  And the most fabulous glacier view, which we could just see below the cloudline.

 

After lunch we decided to try walking up past the glacial lakes to see how close we could get – which was fairly – a fun scramble anyway.  And then the promised rain arrived and we got absolutely soaked to the skin walking back!  Thank god for Berta’s heating – not something we thought we’d need on this trip, but it was cold up there by the glacier!

 

Day 10

After a quiet night up by the glacier, we got up early (aided by the many cars of climbers turning up from about 6am) and tried a morning walk.  The popular thing to do here is to walk up to the Moiry Hut – in a spectacular location overlooking the glacier and peaks, and presumably where the 10 or so cars that had also overnighted were staying.  And it’s obviously a climbing hot spot too.  We started on up the track, but it was a little too much for me, so after stopping to watch a couple of guys actually traversing the glacier, and momentarily getting a view of the snowcapped peaks, we turned back.

We had another plan though.  We’d seen the day before down in Grimentz a poster for fiestas that day on the mountain above the town, accessible by cable car which was free that day.  So we headed back down and parked just above the AC area (free), and took the cable car up to Bendolla.

And yes, fiesta in the clouds at the top!  Love finding things like this!  We arrived just as they were finishing singing mass, and then a brass band started up, and there was free flowing local white wine all round!  And then the highlight, two old gentlemen playing the Coeurs des Alpes horns atop the mountain.  We then headed to the bar terrace, where we got ourselves some fresh raclette and sat and watched the parachutists taking off above us.  It was very cool!

We then followed a marked track back down to Grimentz, about an hour, through the pinewoods – a nice alternative way down if a little hard on the knees.

The drive back down from Grimentz towards Sion proved that the road actually wasn’t that bad too!

Our afternoon stop was a nice stroll around Sion itself, the main town of the Valais valley.  Easy road parking on a Sunday, and we had a nice ice cream, wander to the cathedral, and around the medieval streets.  The town is actually most spectacular on its approach as it has two hills sticking up above it, one with a castle and one with a church.  We were too knackered to climb up to either of these, but appreciated the views from below!

Then we headed up to our overnight – another free car park well up above Sion, next to the Chalet Binii.  Ignore your GPS!  Take the obvious main road up where the bus stops are!  It’s a windy one, but worth it at the top.  The car park is huge and flat, and has great views back down over the Valais valley, and potentially to the snowy peaks of all the southern valleys – these were in the cloud unfortunately, but it was still a great view!  There are toilets and showers open 0830-1730 – the opening hours of the small tourist office up here, and a Euro Relais service point.  The reason for the tourist office is that this is the car park for the Torrent Neuf – what looked to be a great walk along a high bisse – the irrigation channels of the surrounding vineyards.  Unfortunately, this looked just a little too vertiginous for Gonzalo, so was not on our list!

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Binii Car Park

Day 11

Although the Torrent Neuf was off the cards, we picked up some info at the tourist office the next morning about many other bisse walks in the area.  We rather fancied some vineyard walking after all the mountains, so we headed back down towards Sion, and parked up in the car park at Mont d’Orge.  Here there is the Mont d’Orge bisse, with great views back across Sion and its vistas, and surrounded of course by vineyards on all sides.  There were various options on how to make a circuit of the walk, taking in the Siphon bisse, walking up and over to the chateau ruins on the top of the hill, or along the Mont d’Orge lake – which we chose.

Then we left Sion behind us, and headed back up the Valais valley to another of its southern valleys – this time the Saas valley.

And this is really where part 2 of our trip starts, because here at the Camping Mischabel we met up with my brother Robin and his girlfriend Jenny.  They’re in the middle of a 6 month stint in the Alps, principally climbing.  Having just come back from a 2 week break back in the UK, they drove straight back over to meet us here and show us around their Alpine haunts.

We had a nice relaxing afternoon at the campsite, chilling after all the driving and catching up once again on the washing.

Another expensive site, around 45 CHF the night, but once again, with a great value valley pass, the Citizen’s Pass, almost all the cable cars for free (and there are lots), buses, and other discounts.  The campsite had the advantage of a bus stop right outside, taking us to all the cable cars, and having that luxury of not moving the vans for a few days.

Day 12

So now we had our own personal mountain guides!  And our first excursion with them was a nice walk down the river to Saas Grund, before taking the cable car up to Kreuzboden, changing cable cars, and on up to Hohsaas at 3142m and right above its own glacier.

There’s a simple 1 hour circular walk up here taking in the glacier views, and then we headed back down to Kreuzboden to check out the little lake there, and picnic beside it as part of the simple “Wellness .  A nice gentle morning excursion with great views.

That afternoon we caught the bus up the valley in the other direction to Saas Amagell.  Here we caught the Furgstalden gondola up, where a short walk down a bit took us to the Heidbodme gondola – which took us up to a great mountain refuge – and surprisingly a valley with no glacier in it!  Having already melted, an interesting U shaped high valley.  The refuge turned out to be Robin’s favourite cake spot – with great mountain views across some of the 18 4,000m peaks around the Saas valley.  Great cake too!

We got the first gondola back down, and walked the rest down through the pinewoods – and narrowly missing the bus, then walked back from Saas Amagell to the campsite – a bit of a slog, but also very pretty.

Day 13

Once again, the campsite had no problem in letting us leave our vans on site whilst we made the most of our last day in the Saas valley – very kind and allowed us to really make the most of our Citizen’s Passes.

We headed back up to the Furgstalden cable car from the day before, and this time took the Adventure Trail from the top, a kinda tame Via Ferrata (which is too much for Gonzalo’s vertigo).  Bridges, lots of metal steps, it was fun!  and at the end of that we headed up the valley alongside a beautiful mountain stream to the Almagelleralp Hut, a lovely spot where we had a drink and some sneaky raclette once again!

We then walked back down through the pine woods, alongside the river and its waterfalls, and this time making it in time for the bus!

Back at the campsite, we then had a 3 hour drive up to our next overnight – the Great San Bernard Pass on the Swiss/Italian border.  Berta’s second test, and she did it well.  We stopped briefly on the Swiss side at the top, with great views overlooking the lake, and Gonzalo picked up his Swiss souvenir of the trip – a Victorinox penknife at a very good price!  We had a quick look in the hospice up here too, before heading down into Italy…

Continued in Alps – 3/4 – Italy

 

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