Switzerland 2008 Day 2 – Waterfalls, more lakes and a fantastic funicular
Its funny how quickly things change when you’re on holiday. It was on the third day since we’d left the UK, and already I was beginning to lose track of what day it was.
The day – for the record – was Monday, and we were leaving Meiringen and the fantastic Hotel Victoria, and heading for Wilderswill.
Our baggage packed and left with reception, we were on our way. The previous days evening rain had cleared the air and the sun was out in serious force as we cycled towards the Brienzersee along the route we’d partially done the day before.
In contrast to Sunday, the air base was packed to the rafters – complete with a bored looking sentry on the gates. Clearly the Swiss military only work weekdays – a useful tip if you fancy invading. Fighters stood on tarmac, waiting to be airborne. We’d hear them later on in the day, zooming over the landscape.
Near Brienz it was time to go somewhere new, and tackle something difficult – a hill. And a big one at that. Not only that – a hill that was a road. A quiet road none-the-less, but still one that the giant post buses use, blazing their horns as they hurtle through tight bends. (Later I’d realise that the post buses use the same three notes on their horn, as the railway stations used to introduce their tannoy announcements. Seriously. Now that’s brand integration).
There were great views to be had, but cycling was hard. Still getting used to the gears, I managed to go the wrong way and barely minutes after beginning the uphill cycle, momentum was lost and it was time to start pushing the bike upwards. Not that I stood much of a chance of getting the whole way up – it took about 15 minutes pushing before we could finally start going on reasonably level ground again.
The up hill was to be worth the wait as we started going down hill again, into the grounds of the Grandhotel Giessbach, No, we weren’t done for the day already – we were popping into the hotel grounds for another reason. A waterfall.
No holiday is complete without a waterfall. Or two.
It was an amazing sight – the Giessbachfalls see water plunge down over 14 levels of rock. It’s so amazing they built a hotel here. And a funicular railway.
After some waterfall admiration, and an important mid morning ice cream, it was time to actually get a closer look and cross the falls themselves, as well as getting some fantastic views of the hotel and the surrounding Brienzersee.
After the spectacular views it was back on the bike and some cycling on a rough gravel path next to a very steep drop down on one side.
Slowly but surely we came back down the hill we’d taken so much time to cycle up earlier that day, as we headed towards the picturesque village of Iseltwald – the mountain road offering some fantastic views, but also being the place where I managed to lose my sunglasses…
As we were cycling in the shade, I’d put them in the pannier with my camera. Whilst fishing the camera out for a shot, they must have fallen out. By the time I’d noticed they were missing, we were some way away. They weren’t expensive (on sale in Millets for about a fiver or something) but they were very good, comfy and sadly missed.
Sans sunglasses, we arrived at the lake shore in Iseltwald, and parked up next to a bench to much down our lunch – bread and Emmental bought from the Migros supermarket in Meiringen earlier that day.
There seemed to be little going on in Iseltwald bar several large groups of cyclists, and after a relaxing, sun-kissed break, we headed on, stopping only to try to go to the toilet. Which we couldn’t do as some mean so and so was charging about the equivalent of 10p to use them – the only public toilets in Switzerland where we saw this. And of course, you needed correct change, which, of course, I didn’t have.
After a bit more up hill via the neighbouring village of Snegg, it was back on the lake front and soon we were approaching the major tourist centre of the area – Interlaken.
We were heading just off towards the town of Wilderswill – past an aerodrome and the frankly mysterious looking Mystery Park – a theme park which didn’t unravel the mystery of how to get visitors. Its forlorn spheres and towers casually standing in the landscape.
It was just after 2pm when we pulled up at Wilderswill train station. Our days cycling had only been 30km and we’d easily polished it off. We parked the bikes in the crowded racks on the platform, and looked for something to do with the afternoon.
That didn’t take long – Wilderswill is home to the Schynigge Platte Bahn – a funicular railway which goes up to the Schynigge Platte, and which promises promises a journey into the past – the line opened in 1891 and its engines date back to 1910-1914. The carriages date from between 1893 and 1931, and even the gantries which hold up the power cables have an antique feel – being as they are, made out of wooden poles.
As we arrived, two trains were about to leave the station, but it turned out a good idea not to rush as by waiting for the 1445 departure, it turned out we could get a cheap “teatime” return ticket, saving us about a tenner each and giving us free tea and cake at the hotel at the top. 38CHF instead of 56 (roughly £20 instead of £29). Bargain!
After a brief trip to the supermarket on a (failed) trip to find some decent sunglasses, it was time to head up to the top – rising 1383m above sea level on an old electric train with open air carriages. The normal windowed carriages were all reserved for a tour group, but frankly on this particular day, they were the ones who had drawn the short straw – it was gloriously sunny, and the lack of windows meant no glass to get in the way of photos!
The line is mostly single tracked with passing loops. There’s no signalling equipment on the line, and on our visit, two trains would go up together – keeping a respectful distance apart. Indeed on one journey, we saw three set off at once. I know what you’re thinking. "But Andrew. There’s no signals! Isn’t that incredibly unsafe? What if one crashes into the other?" Well there’s no need to worry – the top speed is only 12km/h, giving the drivers plenty of time to react!
According to the timetable leaflet, the line has an average gradient of 19% and a maximum gradient of 25% – the line is a rack based railway on a 1m gauge. And as it curves round the hillside, trundling on, there’s some stunning views – initially of Wilderswill, then of the Interlaken area, sandwiched between the two lakes that ultimately give it its name.
Then it was into a tunnel, and out again. And suddenly the views had changed. Water and greenery gave way to the mighty, snow topped mountain range. The Eiger. The Jungfrau. The Mönch.
According to one leaflet, “insiders say that the Schynigge Platte Bahn offers the best views of the Eiger range”. And who are we to argue with these insiders, whoever they are.
It takes around 50 minutes to get to the top, and with that it was straight to the hotel for our free tea and cake – a strange almond and apple thing. And then it was time to stretch our legs.
As you’d expect of a place 1967m above sea level with a funicular railway to it, there was naturally a series of good walking routes, including an amazing looking 6 hour hike across the range to a mountain called First. There’s even a hiking boot test centre at the train station where you could get free loan of some boots.
Most of the routes were a bit longer than the time we had, so we set off onto the short round trip to the Daube – a large rock with an amazing viewpoint of the mountains and lakes all in one.
Those insiders may have been in the employ of the railway company, but with views like that, the competition would have to be pretty strong.
After soaking in amazing view after amazing view (and taking amazing photo after amazing photo) we headed back along the rest of the circular route back to the station, via the Alpengarden – a botanical garden full of planted alpine flowers which seemed slightly odd given there were plenty of examples of the same flowers in the wild just nearby.
Still, you’ve got to keep the tourists interested – no doubt the reason why the train station also has a nostalgic teddy bear exhibition, which, for some reason, we bypassed, choosing to take the 5pm train down rather than do the teddys and wait for the 6pm train – the last of the day.
Going down then provided more fantastic views, and the realisation that the only thing powering the brakes was gravity itself – I quickly noticed that the trains didn’t draw any power on their downward trip, with presumably enough power being generated by the train by its downward momentum, to power its breaks. Ingenious.
Back on the valley floor, it was time to find the hotel, which some sadist had put up the top of a hill – just what you want when you’re cycling.
We checked in to the Hotel Berghof, with our luggage arriving a few minutes later. Partially – one item had gone awol, meaning whilst we could shower, there were no clean clothes to change into. Thankfully it turned up within an hour…
After refreshing ourselves, it was time for tea, washed down by the local Rüganbrau beer and a sit out on the terrace outside, overlooking the mountains, where Catherine managed to think some people with thick Brummie accents, were actually speaking German – despite me claiming that they were very recognisably English in appearance.
It had been a day of amazing views, and as the sun came down, it was time for some more. In this part of the world, red sky at night is most certainly tourist delight.