I know, I know. You have been without an update from me for a whole week. The suspense must be killing you. What amazing adventures could I possibly be having that would keep me away from writing for so long? I must be out of the hostel for over 12 hours a day and come back just long enough to maybe shower and crash into bed for a few blissful hours before bounding out of the door again in the morning. There must be thousands of pictures by now of all the incredible things I see every day, countless stories of the people I meet and the profound cultural sharing that I am participating in. Right? Right??
Unfortunately, no. My reasons for radio silence are not nearly that grand.
Basically it comes down to three things:
- I honestly did not do much in Zurich (the first time) or Bern so I didn’t feel like writing individual posts for those places was worthwhile.
- I have been sick. Just a head cold with some wonderful throat+ear drainage happening. I’ve been grumpy and in no mood to write.
- I have been enjoying some time in the company of apathy and melancholy. I’m sure much of this was health and weather related, but no matter the cause, the result was the same. Namely that I could not bring myself to write.
Well now my time in Switzerland is about to come to a close. I only have one more full day here, back in Zurich, before I hop the train north and find some dear friends in Germany. My health is improving (though still not optimal), the weather has been better (but I think a thunderstorm just started), and I did some pretty awesome things in Interlaken that are definitely worth sharing.
So buckle up, there’s a lot to cover in this post. Maybe make sure you have a snack and some water, and take that pee break now because there are no exits between here and the destination.
ZURICH (the first time):
I did not have much fun in Zurich. The hostel was in a good location, right in the middle of the old city and a short walk from the main train station. But it was small, had terrible internet, the kitchens always smelled, you had to pay for sheets (which I did not do since I brought my own sleeping sheet-bag thing for situations like this), and the girl that slept under me on the bunk snored so badly I spent half my first night imagining hitting her over the head with various objects. I spent most of my morning booking hostels for later parts of my trip, something I had been neglecting. In the afternoon I did take myself for a leisurely walk around the old city and down by the lake, which was pleasant. There is a fountain that is (floating??) in the lake and goes off every 20 minutes or so. It was nice to sit on the pier and watch that, the mist created a very lovely rainbow. But mostly I just wandered around for a couple hours before heading back to my hostel thinking I would just watch a movie and call it a night. Luckily the Universe decided I deserved a friend, and a nice young man in my hostel struck up a conversation with me and we spent the evening chatting on the roof deck with a bottle of wine. The next day we met for breakfast at a place called the Äss Bar. I’m not kidding. They served day-old pastries at discount prices under the slogan “yesterday’s food fresh today”. Eric, my new friend, made way too many indelicate jokes about this, but I really couldn’t blame him, they were just way too easy. We then walked along the lake on the opposite bank I had done the previous day. The wind was freezing and we whined the whole way back to the hostel. Basically we were just grumpy company for each other since that was better than being alone. Like I said, my time in Zurich was not thrilling.
My hostel in Bern was really nice. So nice I wanted to move in for a while. There was a lovely kitchen with a large, sunny dining area. The shower room was private and the floor stayed dry. I maybe abused the privilege a little bit. And while my room had six beds there were only two other people until my very last night and they were behind a dividing wall. It was like having my own room. So swanky.
I only had one full day in Bern and I spent it going on a small out of town trip to a place called Papiliorama. This is a small ecological center whose main purpose is to conduct conservation work in Central America, but they use their base in Switzerland for a really interesting kind of immersion education. The center consists mostly of three bio-domes that are each structured like the tropical house at a zoo and they each have their own specific purpose. The first, called papiliorama, is strictly for butterflies. They have a case that houses rows of chrysalides until the butterflies emerge. I was lucky enough to see a staff member removing mature butterflies and giving a short interpretation for visitors. What made it more impressive is that he gave his information first in German, then French, and finally in English!
The whole dome is a tropical butterfly paradise with countless flowing trees and shrubs in addition to the trays with prepared fruits and shallow dishes of water. It was certainly much larger than any other butterfly garden I had ever seen before in zoo. Usually places like this mix their butterflies into their regular tropical house, but here the butterflies ruled this tiny kingdom all on their own.
The next dome in the center is called nocturama. When I looked up Papiliorama online I was a little confused about their nocturama exhibit. Initially I thought it was something that was only open at night so I was surprised to find it open during the day. After just taking two steps inside I knew this strange dome would be my favorite experience in a zoo setting. The whole dome is dark with only black lights illuminating the path and certain parts of the enclosures. While this is unnerving and a little frustrating at first, you soon realize that the gloom rewards your struggle by showing you the wide awake behaviors of nocturnal animals. In any other zoo during the day these animals would be sound asleep. But Papiliorama has successfully flipped their sleep cycles through lighting so that the animals are awake during the day so that visitors can observe foraging and social behaviors. The ocelot was up exploring, crab-eating raccoons were washing their dinner in their little stream, a six-banded armadillo was strutting a snuffling about, I even watched a two-toed sloth gracefully move from one side of its enclosure to the other. And there were bats flying everywhere. There were prehensile tailed porcupines up in branches in several places. Though you would never get an in-color detailed look at any of these animals tis way, you still got to see them up and active which was a real treat.
The last dome is called jungle trek and is meant to be a copy of the rainforest where the Papiliorama base in Belize is located. There are a few animal enclosures around the edges of this dome, and there is a really cool elevated walkway, but mostly the idea is to expose visitors to the kinds of plants and microclimates that exist in Belize that Papiliorama is working to preserve.
Outside, on the wooded slope in front of the center, they have a tiny farm set up with several breeds of heritage goats, hogs, rabbits, and poultry. Visitors can enter the whole space and touch pretty much anything that lets them get close. Except for the hogs. They were huge and I was just fine having a fence between me and them. They also had a pond that was designed to be a natural habitat for some locally threatened species of turtles and frogs. A huge netted tent was their “bug big top” where in the summer bees and other flying insects could be observed with information about their nesting and feeding habits. Off in a corner of this outdoor space was a play space with several climbing structures and sand pits. The whole center was designed with children and families in mind, to encourage active learning and creative outdoor play.
I was pretty lazy for the rest of my time in Bern. I did go walking around the old city for a little while which was nice. The symbol for the city is the brown bear and they have a few in residence down by the river. They have a breeding pair and kept one of the cubs from a litter born a few years ago. Each bear has a name and a plaque describing when and where they were born plus notes about their personality. The bears are obviously very loved.
A few sights around town:
Lovely old clock tower with moving parts. Sorry the picture is so terrible..
What city doesn’t need a pair of disembodied, four-toed feet?
One thing did confuse me about Bern, and the same can be said for Interlaken as well: they do not have pedestrian crosswalks. People just wander into the street wherever they like. While this is allows pedestrians to truly go where they please, it creates no small amount of chaos with people going every which way and cars and trams attempting not to hit them. It is very fortunate that pedestrians have the right of way and vehicles are very conscientious and polite. But it makes the average road look something like this:
Yep, that’s a dude just strolling down the trolly tracks.
I was very happy when my time in Bern was over and I could finally go to Interlaken, the one place in Switzerland I was really looking forward to.
If there is a word for Interlaken, it is ADVENTURE. If there is a second word for Interlaken, it is MOUNTAINS. This little town has a perfect location for any outdoor activity you can imagine. The flat valley floor provides space for walking and biking, and a few happy cows in their lush pastures.
But no matter which way you turn here there are mountains. The kind of mountains you can sit all day and stare at because you will never understand just how high they are. I did sit and stare my second day in town, but I’ll get to that later.
When I arrived the sky was thickly overcast and it was unpleasantly chilly. I did go for a walk around town. Not difficult to do since the town is so small, but I was hoping the next day would bring better weather since I wanted to go explore those amazing mountains and was hoping for a good view. Thankfully the weather was on my side and the next morning was bright and sunny. Though to be honest I was up before the sun had reached the valley. I was bound for the 6:35am train leaving from Interlaken heading up to the Jungfraujoch (“j” sounds like “y”). The Jungfraujoch is the highest train station in Europe at around 3,500 meters above sea level. To get there you have to hop on a series of trains that climb ever higher along the mountains before finally tunneling directly into the mountain because the weather and cliff face are too extreme. The building of this railway occurred in the late 1800s and took 16 years to complete. It is truly impressive to think of the engineering skill and grueling physical labor it took to create this marvel. I took so many pictures of the climb up the mountain, but most of those pictures are terrible since they were taken through the train window. Watching the sun come up and slowly light the mountains was a wonderful sight.
It was so fascinating to watch the landscape change from warm, green valley, or thinning tree line, to nothing but rock and snow. There were a few places along the trip, once we were in the mountain tunnel, where we were allowed to get off the train and look out through large windows at the peaks we would soon be above.
Eventually we arrived at the final stop. The complex at the top of the mountain is a giant network of tunnels with a few buildings carefully attached to the mountainside. While most of the people who visit the Jungfraujoch are tourists, there is a very important climatology research center there as well. The position of this particular notch in the mountains is very special in that it receives winds from many directions and allows scientists to track not only large scale weather patterns but various environmental indicators as well. As a visitor, the whole place is a series of long passageways that look something like this:
There is an observation deck that, along with some climate science equipment, provides a really awesome view of the surrounding mountains and even parts of southern Germany and France if the sky is especially clear.
Observation tower called the Sphinx
View north toward Germany
I stayed out on the deck until my fingers started to freeze. I have way to many pictures of snow covered mountains now. But it was totally worth it.
Back down in the tunnels I made my way to the ice palace that is carved inside the mountain. While it was not as grand as I thought it would be, the sculptures were still awesome and there was one really narrow tunnel that was fun to go through a few times.
Long entrance tunnel. Everything, except for the railing, is ice. Even the floor!
There is also another overlook plateau with the Swiss flag that was pretty cool. It’s the closest you can actually get to the top of the actual Jungfrau mountain. Again, I took way too many pictures until my fingers started to freeze.
Top of Europe!
Some meteorological equipment with evidence of the extreme weather up this high. Jungfrau mountain is in the background.
Once I had been everywhere inside the tunnels I decided to head out on the one walking path that is safe for all visitors. It did not look that long and the map said it would only take 45 minutes to reach the cabin restaurant at the other end. What I did not account for was altitude and the decreased oxygen content of the air that comes along with it. I had never been that high on a mountain before and walking was very difficult, especially on the few rising slopes in the path. I had to take a lot of breaks otherwise I got very lightheaded. Also the sun was very strong. So there I am, walking in the snow on top of a mountain, sweating like crazy because my body is working so hard to breathe and the alpine sun is beating down mercilessly. But I loved every minute.
View back toward Jungfrau and the Sphinx (can you find it?? Hint: it’s perched on top of the lowest peak) from the path.
There are amazing views all along the path, of the mountains and of the Aletsch Glacier, which is the flat expanse below the mountains.
As a bit of a side note, I had noticed that there were a lot of people on the train going up the mountain that had skies and what looked like ice climbing equipment. This was all explained when I started walking on the path outside the Jungfraujoch. Those brave souls were skiing down from the Jungfraujoch onto the glacier, then climbing back up another slope, before skiing back down. This whole process must take each group several hours. I tried to take a picture of their route, but it was so far away that all you can see is a thin line and a few black dots against the snow.
Here is a group of them before they took the initial slope down to the glacier. They all had packs filled with supplies, ropes, and ice picks. Way more intense than anything I would ever do. But it was certainly a good day to spend on the mountain.
After nearly four hours on the mountain, I decided it was time to head back down. The train ride was just as lovely, though I was much more aware of the pressure change. my head cold had lessened while I was up on the mountain and now it came back with a vengeance, unfortunately. I knew I would have to take it easy the next day if I had any hope of getting better soon.
So that is exactly what I did. I took a walk by one of the lakes, found a comfortable bench, and just read my book for a while. It was a pleasant sunny day. Ducks and the occasional swan passed by and kept me company. It was a good recovery day.
As I walked back to my hostel, I passed by the park where the tandem paragliders landed. I had been seeing them in the sky all day and it certainly looked like fun. I was not totally sure I had the guts to make the fee worthwhile. But before the afternoon was over I had convinced myself that, since I was here, I might as well see the mountains in as many ways as possible before I left. I scheduled a pickup for 9:30 the next morning, that way I would have plenty of time to go flying before catching the train back to Zurich in the afternoon.
I was nervous in the morning. I was not sure I could trust a complete stranger enough to fly over mountains with nothing but a chute keeping us in the air. But the pilots were all very friendly and the guy I got paired with was very amiable and chatty. He had over 20 years experience, had started flying as a hobby, and did various other adventure sports. He obviously knew what he was doing and put me right at ease.
What an exhilarating experience. I was laughing the whole time. My pilot was having a great time pointing things out to me, including the birds and explaining how we were flying just like them by catching the upswell of warm air coming off the ground. After we did several circles to catch the best air and gain some height, we flew straight to get over the lakes and the town. The view was amazing. Once we were over the town my pilot asked if I would like to do a few tricks. Of course I said yes! Soon we were swinging and spinning in crazy circles. All too quickly we were back on the ground and all I wanted to do was go back up. I’ll have to keep an eye out for paragliding schools that I can take lessons at someday. I would love to go flying on my own!
Finally, it was time to say goodbye to Interlaken, that magical mountain town. I was very sad to leave such a wonderful place, but it was the perfect end to the first part of my trip. Soon I will be heading to Germany where I will be staying with friends. There I will have my own room (sort of) and most importantly there will be kittens! I have long thought about my time in Germany as the midpoint for my time in mainland Europe. I am a month into this journey and am starting to settle into the routine of travel. But it will be nice to spend a little time away from hostels and in the company of good friends that know me well. There will be many more adventures to come, but no more mountains. So here is one last look at Jungfrau, that snow covered beauty:
ZURICH (the second time):
Felt ill and tired. Rained the whole time. Hardly left the hostel. Go read the part about Interlaken again.
So that’s it. That is how I spent the last week in Switzerland. I survived and am learning to take better care of myself. By taking a nap today, for example, when my walk by the lake got rained out. I have been tired all day and I want to make sure that I have good energy tomorrow for the train ride to Germany. Also I’m hoping another day of rest will help take care of this damn cold that still insists on sticking around. Plus the food at the hostel is pretty good and there’s plenty of it for a not so terrible price, so I really have no reason to go anywhere.
I will do my best to not go so long between posts again. I really do not like having to write so much all at once and I know you would like more regular updates. I will try harder from now on. Until next time!