I thought that Lauterbrunnen would bring out my wild side. But, it wasn’t until I was frozen in fear 20 metres in the air that it dawned on me: I’m not really an extreme sports kind of girl. Unfortunately, that realization did not change the fact that there were still only two options ahead of me:
1. Build a home on the two-foot-long wooden plank I was standing upon and live the rest of my life among the treetops of Interlaken.
2. Somehow get my legs to work again, fasten my carabiner to the zipline above me, sit down in the harness that I was pretty sure I wasn’t wearing properly, and launch myself to certain death.
As I pondered my choices, my mind filled with questions: Why had I ever thought that being stranded 20 metres in the air might be a fun way to spend the day? Why hadn’t I just curled up with a book and coffee at my favourite café? What on Earth had made me leave the sleepy cows, trickling creeks and quiet life that I had set up in Lautebrunnen?
At the beginning of September, a friend invited me to stay at the chalet in Lauterbrunnen where he was living for the summer. After four months of non-stop travelling, I couldn’t think of a better place to settle down for a while. Lauterbrunnen, a village in the Bernese Oberland region of Switzerland, is exactly what you expect of Switzerland. Lonely old hotels, fuzzy blankets on restaurant chairs for cold evenings, menus featuring fondue, raclette and rosti, Swiss Army knives and toblerone in the shops, and everywhere, the sound of water and the sight of mountains.
The village sits in a U-shaped valley surrounded by steep rock walls. On a clear day, you can see the snowcapped tips of the Bernese Alps, including the peaks of the Jungfrau, Monch and Eiger. On rainy days, when smoke-coloured clouds settle halfway up the craggy rockface and the waterfalls glow in the gloom, it is easy to see how Lauterbrunnen became the inspiration for Tolkien’s fictional land, Rivendell, after he visited the valley in 1911.
Lauterbrunnen makes a great base for all sorts of Alpine adventures. You can take a steep hike to the car-free village of Wengen, ride a cable-car to lovely Murren, or take in the magnificent view from the revolving restaurant in Schiltorn, which was visited by James Bond in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.”
But the main event is the train ride up to the Jungfraujoch, Europe’s highest railway station perched at nearly 3500 metres on a ridge of the Jungfrau, where you can also enjoy ski hills, toboggan rides, huskies and an ice palace. It’s a pricey adventure, but worth every franc on a clear day when you can see past miles of glaciers and mountains all the way to the Black Forest in Germany.
The name Lauterbrunnen means ‘many waterfalls’; indeed, there are 72 falls around the valley, and when it’s not just pure silence that you hear around you, it’s water. One of Lauterbrunnen’s most stunning sights are the ten Trummelbach falls, which carry water down from the glaciers of the Jungrau; you can walk through a series of subterranean platforms and trails and feel the roar of 20,000 litres per second rushing through the mountains around you.
The Staubbach Fall, one of the highest in Europe, cascades 300 metres down the cliff above Camping Jungfrau, where Edu and I lived in a cozy wooden chalet among cabins full of backpackers, families in camper vans, and tour groups.
After spending only a couple of days there, it was easy to consider Camping Jungfrau my home. We ate dinners at the warmly-lit onsite restaurant with friends; traditional Swiss rosti, or applemacaroni, or German sausages. On one of the first nights I arrived, the campsite was hosting a folk party and everyone gathered around the courtyard to listen to traditional songs, while men paraded by ringing giant cowbells, and everyone ate cheese bread and drank weissbier. Hans and Ruth, the owners of the grounds, are always around to chat with guests, as is Barry, the groundskeeper from Bristol who would often pop his head through our chalet window to tell us to keep it down when we were being too noisy, but then come in and join us for a drink.
After dinner, we would walk up the street to the Horner Pub – the only pub in town – where we would bundle up on the terrace with locals and ex-pats for a few drinks. When it was time to leave, we would walk the dark road back to the campsite under the stars, listening to the distant tinkle of cowbells while the glowing Staubbach Fall lit our way home.
One particularly crisp afternoon, Edu and I hiked to the nearby village of Stechelberg. We walked for an hour along the winding road, over bridges, past sprawling pastures full of grazing cows and quiet farmhouses. Every now and again, I had to stop and stare. I’ve seen beautiful landscapes before, but nothing compares to standing in a meadow, with the sun glinting off a crystal-clear Alpine river beside you, surrounded on all sides by snowy peaks.
We stopped for a coffee on a quiet terrace in Stechelberg, and as we waved to a couple hiking past with walking sticks and a happy dog trailing alongside, I couldn’t imagine anything better; a Canadian and a Spaniard drinking delicious coffee, with hours of daylight ahead, in the middle of the most majestic country in the world.
It was precisely that moment that I recalled from high up on the tree of terror, wondering why I had felt it necessary to leave the peaceful valley to partake in this insane activity. There was only one place to blame: the Airtime Café.
It is the best café on the only road through the village, where you’ll also find the Horner Pub, as well as the Hotel Oberland for the best rosti, the co-op supermarket, the post office and the train station. You haven’t really experienced Lauterbrunnen until you’ve spent an afternoon at Airtime Café, eating a bagel with cream cheese and pesto, watching the train go up and down the mountain from Wengen and listening to excited people talk about the crazy things they got up to that day.
After all, the hikes and train rides around the Valley are nice, but the greatest thrills to be had in the Bernese Oberland are the ones that involve speed, height, and a view that makes the fear worthwhile.
Most of the action takes place in Interlaken – 30 minutes away by train from Lauterbrunnen – one of the adventure sport capitals of the world, where the sky is full of parachutes, the mountains are dotted with base jumpers, and the rivers ring with the laughter of rafting groups. There is no better landscape in which to abseil, zipline, paraglide, skydive, slide through canyons or paddle down rapids. Even the most experienced adrenaline-junkies can’t help but be impressed.
From the terrace of Airtime Café, it seems like everyone in town is doing something awesome, so one afternoon, I decided to join in. I chose the seilpark – a ropes course where you climb up and over obstacles, and slide along ziplines through the trees – figuring it would be a fun way to get active and work my way up to a potentially airborne activity.
But by the time I finally crossed my fingers, took a deep breath, and launched myself down my final zipline – which, after all my worrying, was one of the best thrills I’ve ever had – I was satisfied, but pretty sure I wouldn’t be going any higher off the ground again than the top bunkbed.
In the end, was I happy I got involved and tried an adventure sport? Definitely.
Will I spend the rest of my Swiss holiday wrapped in a blanket eating toblerone? Absolutely.
Written by Andrea MacDonald for EuropeUpClose.com. You may also want to check-out some of Andrea’s earlier articles from this summer’s travel series: My own Private Ibiza; San Sebastian, Spain; Madrid’s Most Diverse Neighbourhood; My Greek / Turkish Adventure; York England…City of Cats.
Follow Andrea’s travels through Europe this Summer / Fall; she’s a gal on the move. Can you tell us Where in the World Andrea Will Go Next? Find a clue in the following photo and tell us on Facebook or in comments below where you think she went.