Friday, February 12, 2010

White Christmas: Interlaken

Leaving Bern, we got an early train to Interlaken. The route was very popular with skiers, and about half the train got off at the various ski stops along the way. When we arrived at our accommodation we were greeted by a very enthusiastic host, Ursula. After selecting our pick of the free rooms and enjoying a warming welcome drink, she sold us train tickets for the Jungfraujoch and soon we were on our way.

The trip up to the Jungfrau is the highlight of visiting Interlaken. It's in three stages -- the first takes you up to Grindelwald, the second is a cog railway to Kleine Scheidegg, and the last is the steepest cog railway in the world up to the top of the mountain saddle. The scenery was beautiful on the way up, and it didn't take long before we were amongst the snowy mountains and climbing steadily.

The first change was at Grindelwald which looked to be a nice ski resort type place at the foot of a ski field. We hopped on a cog railway trian and were hauled up the mountain to Kleine Scheidegg, a tourist town in a mountain pass. The mountain views from here were great -- they were covered in snow, and the light made them look really imposing. As we went up, we could see plenty of skiers enjoying themselves, and the chairlifts seemed to go very high up.

When we got to Kleine Scheidegg, we found seats on the train only to remember that we'd left the tripod on the other train, so a frantic few minutes ensued while we tried to find our old carriage and the tripod, then raced back to the other train before it departed for the Jungfrau.

It's pretty coldThe trip up the mountain was not that exciting as it was largely in a tunnel, except for when we stopped at the two viewing points within the mountain. These allowed you to see just how far up you were climbing, and provided great views of the mountains and valleys, as well as the glacier which covers the saddle. Once we made it to the top we headed for the Sphinx which has a viewing platform where you can look back down along a glacier, or out towards Interlaken.

It was a wee bit nippy so after taking a few pictures we headed back inside to warm up and make our way to the real outdoorsy part where you can walk on the snow. Unfortunately they didn't have the button sleds so we contented ourselves with throwing snowballs and jumping in the piles of snow. We were very lucky to have such a nice clear day, and we could see for ages; some people get caught out by clouds at the top and can't see a thing!

On the Jungfrau

On the way down we went the other way back via Lauterbrunnen, stopping at Wengen to see what an alpine town is really like. Turns out, pretty cute. There were Christmas lights up, people playing ice hockey, and golf carts driving people around the little streets. It looked like a really nice place to be based for your holidays, especially if you were into skiing. On the train ride back to town we saw people sledding alongside the train tracks, and they were going nearly as fast as the train in some parts!

We had a quiet night and a quiet day the next day, walking around Interlaken. It's quite a touristy town and there wasn't too much interesting stuff there, so we took a bus to Lake Brienz and ambled through a (very quiet) camping ground to admire the lake. It was a very melancholy day, and it wasn't too appealing. It must have been nice on a sunny day though!


The next day we had a relatively early start, as we were off to Lucerne.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

White Christmas: Bern

Bern was to be our main stop in our Switzerland holiday, and it was on a chilly afternoon that we caught the train from Geneva. Along the way there was plenty of snow and some lovely views as we went over the hills. The hills seemed to be covered in vineyards which must make for some pleasant summer evenings with views over Lake Geneva. Instead, they looked rather cold and out-of-place, covered in snow.

Our train arrived on time in Bern, and we were met at the station by Geoffrey who had arrived a few hours earlier. Bern is a city of trams, and we became quite familiar with the one that went to and from our hotel. After dropping off our things, we got ourselves acquainted with the town and saw some of the main landmarks, like the Zytglogge and the Bundeshaus.

The next day we did the full Bern experience, including a tour of the Bundeshaus. There we were greeted by a slightly cranky woman who seemed to want to cancel the tour we had booked because we had said there would be 3 of us but there were only 2. After looking extremely vexed she waved over another group of 6 people who she had waved away before us and said there would be a tour after all. After starting the tour proper we realised it was just her English that made her sound like this and she was actually quite a pleasant tour guide.

The Swiss parliament system seems to be quite efficient and democratic, and on our tour we got to sit in the executive chamber and feel important. The Bundeshaus has lots of stained glass windows inside the main dome, and some interesting paintings on the walls and roof of a small circular lobby which the politicians apparently use for doing a lot of work (rather than use meeting rooms). The tour ended in the room where the National Council meets, and we got to appreciate the political system some more.

We also went to the Bern Munster, and climbed all the steps to the top. The weather wasn't the best so the view wasn't fantastic, but we could still appreciate the higgledey-piggledy nature of Bern's rooftops, and also the size of the bells in the bell tower. After carefully not falling down the steep stairways in the bell tower, we headed off to find the Einstein Museum. Albert Einstein lived in Bern for several years and loved the covered footpaths (as did we). It was an interesting, if small, place to visit.

The next day we headed off to Fribourg where we went for a walk around the lower town and stopped for a photoshoot on the picturesque bridge. Following that we had to get back up the steep hill to the cathedral, and luckily there was a Poo Train just for that purpose. This is a funicular that runs on sewage, using it as a counterweight, and it does make the ride a bit stinky. The cathedral was impressive as most are, but the tower was closed so we couldn't climb it.

We headed back to Bern in time to change for our Christmas dinner, which we were having on Christmas Eve in order to fully experience a European Christmas. Then we hurried back to our hotel to wish our families Happy Christmas.

We woke up to no snow, so we didn't get a white Christmas after all :( To cheer ourselves up we went back to the cathedral to experience a German Christmas service. We could pick out a few words, and enjoyed the hymns, but it was a bit cold in there so we were glad when it finished. To warm ourselves up afterwards we went to visit the bear pit where they actually have two live bears in the middle of town. Thankfully now they have a nice enclosure next to the river with lots of glass and some privacy. Until recently they were stuck in a concrete pit where everyone could stare at them all the time. Our next stop was the Botanic Gardens which weren't terribly exciting in the middle of winter. However they did have orchid and palm houses which were both open and lovely and warm.

Our final activity in Bern was a night time photography expedition, but we couldn't stay out too late because the next morning we were heading to Interlaken...