After a brief visit to the US this summer, where my entire family got COVID and I ended up couchsurfing and lazing at the beach, I landed back in Basel feeling ready for adventure. I’d decided to book myself an equally short trip to Grindelwald, the mountain town that had so enamored me when I first visited a few years back, hoping to traipse through some cow pastures and espy snowy peaks.
My first visit to Grindelwald involved the train, which is fine – Swiss trains are more than fine, really, with something like a 98% on-time ratio (I just finished Swisswatching, a fabulous novel if you ever want to know more about this little landlocked country). Still, in the two years since I’ve been here, we acquired a car (we meaning Dan). When deciding between car vs train, car was a 2 hour drive and train was a 3-hour journey, which is fine – I still find trains to be the most romantic form of transportation – but I’m still wary of COVID given how high the numbers are, and public transportation is like climbing into a witches’ cauldron and stewing in germs being stirred about by some magical unseen paddle.
So I drove. And the drive, like the train journey, is always splendid in that last half hour. Once you dip off the major highway and find yourself alongside the beautifully teal Brienzersee, you realize you’re in for a treat. You’re lakeside, then suddenly you’re going up, and there are fields and pastures and mountainsides in shades of emerald you didn’t know existed.
And of course, there’s the mountains themselves. Imposing, massive. It never gets old.
When I first visited – almost two years to the date exactly – I stayed just outside of town in Hotel Caprice, a cute chalet-style place with views of the Eiger on clear days. This time, I traveled a bit outside of town and stayed at Hotel Gletscherblick. I was spoiled my first time here in July 2020, because COVID put a damper on tourism so it felt like my own private fairy tale town. I gathered that the town would be crowded, and resolved to stay someplace quieter but still relatively central.
Hotel Gletscherblick was perfect for that. My small, cozy room had a view of the mountains – not THE mountains, but whatever. (My apartment has a balcony with a view, too, of my neighbor’s house, so a mountain or a hill is already a step up.)
The only issue with the hotel, I found out while checking in, was the restaurant.
“Our restaurant is closed. We only open on Fridays,” said the receptionist. I departed on Thursday. “You could check Hotel Alpenblick. I don’t remember what days they are open.”
It’s important to note here that restaurants in Switzerland, but especially Grindelwald, have seemingly arbitrary hours and days they’re open. Forget Sundays, and usually Mondays. Then you need to check their schedules for the week.
For example, there’s a great pizza and wine place in Grindelwald called Onkel Tom’s Hutte (clearly a different, Swiss, Tom). It’s closed on Wednesdays and Thursdays. And my favorite little hidden gem, Cafe 3682, was not open at all while I was there – only on the weekends. They must do amazing business (which wouldn’t surprise me).
Of all the restaurants in town, most don’t take reservations. And my little hotel was sort of outside of town anyway, so Alpenblick it was.
I dropped my things in my room, changed into hiking gear, laced up my boots, and went down the road to Alpenblick to get a reservation (hotel restaurants usually do take reservations). Lucky for me, they were open, so I pinned down a spot for 7. It was 3pm now, which gave me plenty of time to sneak a hike into my agenda. But which one?
This is one of the millions of things I love about Switzerland. Take a train to anywhere, get off, and you’ll be greeted by these yellow signs pointing every which way, a Swiss take on the scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz. In each direction lies a hike, or at the very least a walking path. In places like Grindelwald, you’re spoiled for choice.
I wanted a hike hike. Something scrambly, involving roots and mud and unclipping electric fence gates as you stroll through cow pastures. These trails are marked with a white-red-white blaze, while friendlier trails have a yellow diamond.
At the bottom of my road, I found a sign pointing up the mountain towards “Pfingstegg”. The sign helpfully suggested it would take me 1.5 hours to reach this. I factored in a 1.5 hour descent, back at my hotel by 6, get changed and shower, reservation at 7. Perfect.
I began the hike, which took me past the Pfingstegg gondola, one of the few in Grindelwald I had never ridden. (Which is a shame, really, as the cars are fitted with a faux-wood exterior and have their own flower boxes. Adorable.)
In March, Dan and I stayed at an AirBnB near this gondola – which I passed on my hike – and I’d pointed out the gondola to him as we’d walked to Onkel Tom’s.
“Look, there’s a gondola, but it doesn’t seem like it’s running,” I pointed out, to which Dan replied, “…that’s a power line.”
It is not a power line, and it was definitely running on July 12. My hiking path took me up the mountain not directly below it. And it was strenuous.
The entire hike was, obviously, uphill (what was I expecting when I chose a place serviced by a gondola?). Most of the path was through the woods, which gave some relief from the scorching sun, and I got my root fix. But there were portions of steep trail that felt very scree-like and pebbly, and I wondered if I would wipe out on my way back down. Perhaps I could take the gondola, I thought breathlessly, but the cars I’d spotted had been packed with tourists breathing into each other’s mouths.
I had to pause several times on the way up, my heart hammering out of my chest. I wondered if perhaps I might have a heart attack there and roll into a bush, never to be found, so I quickly pinged my friend Rebecca my live location and an estimate of when I’d be summitting. I think the Swiss rescue service, Rega, provides like 3 helicopter rescues each year as part of your insurance. Or maybe you have to be a member of Rega. In any case, I soldiered on.
“The only way up is up,” I told myself, thinking with some terror of the marathon I’ve signed up for in September, whose last 20km are all up-mountain from Grindelwald to Kleine Scheidegg.
It was with a panting joy and sweaty face that I finally emerged from the woods to find what you typically find at the top of a Swiss gondola – a restaurant. But Pfingstegg also boasts a chair swing on a pulley system, where folks lazed in these harnesses while they got pulled around in the air, gazing contentedly at the scenes below them, which included a gasping, mangled-looking woman wiping sweat and sunscreen out of her eyes. (That was me.)
I stepped aside to let some hikers come down. One of them, a man in an Ironman t-shirt (the race, not the superhero), beheld my sweaty presence and said, “You coming from the bottom?” To which I replied, “I am,” to which he replied, “Oh, well done!”
Coming from a man who had presumably completed an Ironman (or found the T-shirt secondhand, but that’s doubtful, right?), this felt like a major compliment, so I skipped up the rest of the way and treated myself to a Rugenbrau at the top.
Also at the top of this gondola is a luge that I did not do. I don’t know why I didn’t; it was only 6 francs. There was a long line, and no one seemed to be going very fast, but these are no excuses for passing up on fun. I have not forgiven myself yet.
Between sips of beer, I took in the stunning view and debated taking the gondola down. I never like descending the way I climbed up, so I plucked a hiking map from a nearby info booth and perused. According to the map, there was another way down, if I were to continue walking along the mountain to the next hut, called Milchbach, I’d see a trail sign directing me down to Grindelwald. This looked fun. I finished my beer and off I went, eyeing the luge as I walked by. (Each rider was holding onto the luge-car with one hand and holding a phone in the other.)
The map showed a slow traverse of the mountain. Just before I reached a tunnel, there would bee a trail marker pointing me down the mountain.
This was not the case. I reached the tunnel and reckoned I’d gone too far, but I also wanted to walk through the tunnel so I kept going. Surely there was another way down, right?
And there was! Perhaps the map was wrong, or the squiggly red line on the map was actually also a trail, but in any case, I was headed down through forests, across boulders, alongside rushing rivers. I spotted a frog on a log, a butterfly on a flower, a llama on the road. Sheep, goats, cows – it was a little symphony of animal sounds and cow bells the entire walk down. And not a single other hiker on the trail.
I reached my hotel at 6:30 and arrived to dinner at 7. My time management is almost as impressive as the hike.