Gimmelwald: For the Swiss Alps in Your Lap
When told you're visiting Gimmelwald, Swiss people assume you mean the famous resort in the next valley, Grindelwald. When assured that Gimmelwald is your target, they lean forward, widen their eyes, and-with their sing-songy Swiss-German accent-they ask, "Und how do you know about Gimmelvald?"
The traffic-free village of Gimmelwald hangs nonchalantly on the edge of a cliff high above Lauterbrunnen Valley, 30 minutes south of Interlaken by car or train. This sleepy village has more cow troughs than mailboxes. The songs of birds and brooks and the crunchy march of happy hikers constantly remind you why so many travelers say, "If Heaven isn't what it's cracked up to be, send me back to Gimmelwald."
Gimmelwald, an ignored station on the spectacular Schilthorn gondola (of James Bond fame), should be built to the hilt. But, led by a visionary schoolmaster, the farming community managed to reclassify its land "avalanche zone" — too dangerous for serious building projects. So while developers gnash their teeth, sturdy peasants continue to milk cows and make hay, thus surviving in a modern world only by the grace of a government that subsidizes such poor traditional industries.
Gimmelwald is a community in the rough. Take a walk — you can tour it in 15 minutes. Its one street, a 700-year-old zig and zag, is decorated by drying laundry, hand-me-down tricycles, and hollowed stumps bursting proudly with geraniums. Little-boy-cars are parked next to the tiny tank-tread cement mixers and mini-tractors necessary for taming this alpine environment. White-bearded elves smoke hand-carved pipes and blond-braided children play "barn." Stones called schindles sit like heavy checkers on old rooftops, awaiting nature's next move. While these stones protect the slate from the violent winter winds, today it's so quiet you can hear the cows ripping tufts of grass.
Notice the traditional log-cabin architecture. The numbers on the buildings are not addresses, but fire insurance numbers. The cute little hut near the station is for storing and aging cheese, not hostelers. In Catholic Swiss towns, the biggest building is the church. In Protestant towns, it's the school. Gimmelwald's biggest building is the school (two teachers share one job, 17 students, and a room that doubles as a chapel when the pastor makes his monthly visit). But don't let low-tech Gimmelwald fool you: In this school, each kid has his or her own website.
There's nothing but air between Gimmelwald and the rock face of the Jungfrau a mile or two across. Small avalanches across the valley look and sound like distant waterfalls. Kick a soccer ball wrong and it ends up a mile below on the Lauterbrunnen Valley floor.
Most Gimmelwald families share one of three surnames: von Allmen, Brunner, and Feuz. Out of 120 townsfolk, there are probably 10 Hans von Allmens and a wagonload of Maria Feuzes. To keep prescriptions and medical records straight, the doctor in nearby Lauterbrunnen goes by birth date first, then the patient's name.
The people of Gimmelwald systematically harvest the steep hillside. Entire families cut and gather every inch of hay, the way Depression-era children polished their dinner plates. After harvesting what the scythe can reach, they pull hay from nooks and crannies by hand.
Half a day is spent on steep rocks harvesting what a machine can cut in two minutes on a flat field. It's tradition. It's like breathing. And there's one right way to do it.
To inhale the Alps and really hold it in, sleep high in Gimmelwald. Poor but pleasantly stuck in the past, the village has a happy hostel, a decent pension, a couple of B&Bs, and the creaky old Hotel Mittaghorn.
Walter Mittler's Hotel Mittaghorn sits at the top end of Gimmelwald. The black-stained chalet has eight balconies and a few tables shaded by umbrellas on its tiny terrace. Everything comes with huge views. Sitting as if anchored by pitons into the steep, grassy hillside, the hotel is disturbed only by the cheery chatter of hikers and the two-stroke clatter of passing tractors.
Evening fun in Gimmelwald is found in the hostel (with lots of young Alp-aholic hikers eager to share information on the surrounding mountains); and, depending on Walter's mood, at Hotel Mittaghorn. If you're staying at Walter's, enjoy his simple supper and coffee schnapps. Then sit on the porch and watch the sun carress the mountaintops to sleep as the moon rises over the Jungfrau.
Starting early in the morning, the bright modern cable-car swooshes by with 30 tourists gawking out the windows. In Gimmelwald the modern world began in 1965 when it got the cable car. Before that, mothers ready to give birth had to hike an hour downhill to the valley floor for a ride into Interlaken. Many mothers didn't make it all the way to the hospital. Outside of Interlaken, a curve in the road is named for a Gimmelwald baby...born right there.
Today, the Schilthornbahn is the all-powerful lift that connects the valley floor with the mountain communities of Gimmelwald and Mürren on its way to the 10,000-foot Schilthorn summit. This artificial vein pumps life's essentials — mail, bread, skiers, hikers, school kids, coffins, parasailers, and tourists — to and from each community.
From Gimmelwald, ride the gondola up the Schilthorn, a 10,000-foot peak capped by the Piz Gloria, a solar-powered revolving restaurant, shop, and panorama terrace. Lifts go twice hourly, involve two transfers, and take 30 minutes. Watch the altitude meter go up, up, up.
For the most memorable breakfast around, ride the early gondola to the summit where you'll find the restaurant and a thrilling 360-degree view. Sip your coffee slowly to enjoy one complete circle. Drop into the theater to see clips from the 1969 James Bond movie On Her Majesty's Secret Service, in which the restaurant is blown up. Then go outside for the real thrills. Frolic on the ridge. Watch hang gliders methodically set up and jump into airborne ecstasy.
While you can hike down from the summit, the first station below the summit, Birg, is the best jumping-off point for high-country hikes.
Two minutes from the Birg station, I'm completely alone — surrounded by a harsh and unforgiving alpine world. Anything alive is here only by the grace of nature. A black ballet of rocks is accompanied by cow bells and a distant river. Wisps of clouds are exclamation points. The Alps put you close to God. A day like today has Lutherans raising their hands and holy rollers doing cartwheels.
I make it to my target, a peak that stands dramatically high above Gimmelwald. After a steep descent, I step out of the forest at the top end of the village I call home. Walking over a pastel carpet of gold clover, bell flowers, milk kraut, and daisies, I'm surrounded by butterflies and cheered on by a vibrant chorus of grasshoppers, bees, and crickets.
The finish line is a bench that sits at the high end of Gimmelwald — one of my "savor Europe" spots. A great dimension of travel is finding the right place and just sitting still. Crickets rattle congratulatory castanets, a river blurts out of a glacier, and Mürren crowns a bluff above me, keeping all the fancy tourists where they belong. An alpine farm that has intrigued me for years still sits high above the tree line, forever alone amid distant flecks of brown and white: cows and goats.
Below me the village schoolyard rumbles with children. Christian, the accordion player, who went up to the fields early this morning, chugs by on his mini-truck, towing a wobbly wagonload of hay. His two preschoolers bounce like cartoons on top.
Enjoying this alone is fine. But share this bench with a new friend, the sun of a daylong hike stored in your smiling faces, and you too will sing, "If Heaven isn't what it's cracked up to be, send me back to Gimmelwald."
If you're interested in the alpine cream of Switzerland, it's best seen from nearby peaks and ridges (Jungfrau, Kleine Scheidegg, or the Schilthorn). If you're looking for Heidi and an orchestra of cowbells in a Switzerland that you thought existed only in storybooks — take off your boots in Gimmelwald.
From Interlaken into the Jungfrau Region
When the 19th-century Romantics redefined mountains as something more than cold and troublesome obstacles, Interlaken became the original alpine resort. Ever since then, tourists have flocked to the Alps "because they're there." Interlaken's glory days are long gone, its elegant old hotels eclipsed by more jet-setting alpine resorts. Today, Interlaken's shops are filled with chocolate bars, Swiss Army knives, and sunburned backpackers.
I had always considered Interlaken overrated. Now I understand that Interlaken is only a springboard for alpine adventures. Stop in Interlaken for shopping, ATMs, post, and telephone chores, and to pick up information on the region. Then head south into the Berner Oberland.
You have several options. Vagabonds who just dropped in on the overnight train (ideal from Paris) can do a loop trip, going down Grindelwald Valley, over the Kleine Scheidegg ridge, and then down into Lauterbrunnen. From there, you can head on out by returning to Interlaken or take the cable car up to Gimmelwald for the alpine cuddle after the climax. Those with more time go directly to the village of Gimmelwald via Lauterbrunnen (skipping Grindelwald) and use that as a home base to explore the region.
Loop trippers should get an early start and catch the private train from the Interlaken East station (free with Swiss Pass, discounted with a Eurailpass or Eurail Selectpass) to Grindelwald. Don't sleep in touristy Grindelwald, but take advantage of its well-informed tourist information office and buy a first-class mountain picnic at its grocery. Then ascend by train into a wonderland of white peaks to Kleine Scheidegg, or go even higher by gondola to Männlichen (Swiss Pass and Eurail discounts for train and gondola). It's an easy one-hour walk from Männlichen down to Kleine Scheidegg.
Now you have successfully run the gauntlet of tourist traps and reached the ultimate. Before you towers Switzerland's mightiest mountain panorama. The Jungfrau, the Mönch, and the Eiger boldly proclaim that they are the greatest. You won't argue.
Like a saddle on the ridge, Kleine Scheidegg gives people something to hang onto. It has a lodge and an outdoor restaurant. People gather here to marvel at tiny rock climbers dangling from ropes halfway up the icy Eiger. You can splurge for the expensive ride from here to the towering Jungfraujoch. Expect crowds on sunny summer days, especially after a stretch of bad weather. The ride's impressive, but I couldn't have asked for more than the Mona Lisa of mountain views that I enjoyed from Kleine Scheidegg.
From Kleine Scheidegg, start your hike down into the less-touristed Lauterbrunnen Valley. The hike is easy. My gear consisted only of shorts (watch the mountain sun), tennis shoes, a tourist brochure map, and a bib to catch the drool. But to be on the safe side, always ask a local for advice and a current weather report. Snow can linger well into summer and clouds can roll in without warning.
It's lunchtime as you hike into your own peaceful mountain world. Find a grassy perch, and your picnic will have an alpine ambience that no restaurant can match. Continuing downhill, you may well be all alone and singing to the rhythm of your happy footsteps. The gravelly walk gets steep in places, and you can abbreviate your hike by catching the train at one of two stations you'll pass along the way. As the scenery changes, new mountains replace the ones you've already seen. After two hours you enter the car-free town of Wengen. Avoid the steep, dull hike from Wengen to Lauterbrunnen by taking the train down to the valley floor, where you can continue by bus and cable car (or cable car and train) to the village of Gimmelwald. This is the scenic but very roundabout way to Gimmelwald. For a much more direct route, take the train from the Interlaken East station to Lauterbrunnen, then a bus to the Schilthornbahn cable-car station near Stechelberg, where you take the cable car up to Gimmelwald. Drivers can pay to park their cars at the station.