I had wanted to visit Switzerland for many years, but for some reason I never went for it. After a particularly stressful time at work during the last half of 2017, I decided at the beginning of November that I simply must have myself a vacation. I found cheap plane tickets to Basel for a week later and bought them. My itinerary for the first half of the trip was entirely based on pictures found on Reddit, and the last half was "improvised" in real time. Compared to most of my solo trips this was a short one, and yet a very good one - a cold winter trip with lots of snow and unbelievable Alpine scenery.
What Country am I in Anyway?
When I purchased my plane tickets to Switzerland all I knew was that I was landing in Basel Airport. It was only when I landed there in November 8 that I realized the airport was actually located in Saint Louis, France, and the airport is really called "EuroAirport Basel Mulhouse Freiburg", as it is located right next to where Switzerland, France and Germany all meet, and is so named after the three largest cities that are closest to it in each country. When landing in the airport, one is directed to different pathways depending on which country they wish to enter. I went through passport control on the Switzerland side of the airport, and continued to pick up a rental car. Once with a car, I drove to an apartment I booked via AirBNB. Again, when I searched for accommodations and booked the apartment I believed I was booking an apartment in Basel, when in fact the apartment was too in Saint Louise. It was actually located directly above the border crossing between France and Switzerland. In my naivety, as I parked my car next to the apartment I took out my phone and snapped a photo of the border crossing. I was immediately approached by two Swiss policemen who ordered me to remove the picture, questioned me for a while about what the hell I was doing, and took my passport for some security checks. Took me all of 30 minutes after landing to get in "trouble" with the authorities.
The apartment was pretty nice though, and while it was already dark when I landed there was still enough time for me to do something, so I walked to the center of Basel. It was cold! Probably not the kind of cold that the locals are affected by, but definitely the kind of cold that an Israeli would be affected by. I walked for quite a while until I reached the center, then crossed the river Rhine and randomly walked where there were signs of the most life. I found myself in what looked like a traditional Bavarian fair, with various sausage booths, candy shops, amusement rides and more. After returning to the AirBNB apartment I spent the rest of the night reading.
Alleys and Avalanches
The second day of the trip I drove to Grindelwald, in the canton (state?) of Berne. On a map this might look like a long drive, but Switzerland and Europe are relatively small and it only took two or so hours to get there. The drive took me through lots of tunnels and close to various lakes. I also passed through Interlaken, which is located between two large lakes, but visibility was not that good.
Grindelwald is crazy beautiful though. The town itself was cold, but on the dry side, with only light films of snow on the roofs of the buildings. But the mountains! the mountains were insane! straight up in your face, they tower above you, huge and threatning and beautiful. The snow on the trees made the mountains look as if they were monochrome. Thankfully the hotel upgraded my room to one with direct view of the mountains. On the day of my arrival, the mountain peaks were covered by clouds, but the sky cleared on the second day and the mountains were revealed in all their glory.
You do not feel as you normally do in the presence of those mountains. It's as if the "atmosphere" is entirely dominated by them. You feel them even when you're not looking at them. And every once in a while you hear this loud and terrible thunder. Well, at least you think it's thunder. But then you look at the mountains and you see mounds of snow crashing on the slopes and realize it was an avalanche that produced the loud rumble.
I stayed for two nights in the Eiger Selfness hotel, which was pretty cool. For hiking trails, I consulted with the hotel receptionist. My first hike took me on a steep walk up into the mountains, through the narrow streets and alleys of Grindelwald. It's really amazing that people live on the slopes of mountains like that. The streets, or really just paths, are so steep, narrow and winding that cars cannot reach them, making walking the only option. Every time I saw a mail box I thought how the mail man was probably in terrific shape. Either that or he hated his job, because it was hard. Every once in a while you see houses with cows, sheep or alpacas grazing in the yards.
As I continued climbing the slopes and distanced myself from Grindelwald, the green of the ground got replaced with the white of the snow, until the ground was entirely covered. Still on an asphalt path, the views became even more amazing. No matter how much I kept walking I still saw wooden cabins near the path, but it seemed like they were all deserted.
Eventually, I reached a little ol' point called "Bort", an aerial tramway station that also includes a small hotel and ski slope (all were closed). A river flows nearby, at one point turning into a half-frozen lake.
While my first hike took me north, the next day I went east through the entire village (and beyond), hoping to reach a nearby glacier, again by the recommendation of the receptionist. It was raining the entire hike. Near the location of the glacier, large mounds of snow started dominating the area, and it became clear that I will not be able to reach the glacier. Still, so much snow was just incredible to me. As I previously mentioned the snow making the mountains look monochrome, here it appeared as if I was suddenly entering a black-and-white world, lending the entire "scene" a very eery feeling, only enhanced by the frequent loud rumbles of the avalanches.
Tramways and Waterfalls
After finishing my final hike in Grindelwald, I drove to the nearby village of Lauterbrunnen. An unbelievable location often featured on Reddit posts, it is mostly famous for Staubbach Fall, a tall waterfall that lands right inside the village, next to houses and hotels. The village is located in a valley, right between steep Alpine mountains. I booked one night at Hotel Staubbach, and got a nice room with great view of the waterfall from the balcony. I was lucky, because it turned out it was the last day the hotel was opened for the season.
The number of visitors in Lauterbrunnen was significantly less than in Grindelwald, owing it to be off-season. I spent the night at a nice local pub, but not before consulting with the hotel's receptionist about a hiking trail for the next day. Sleeping in Lauterbrunnen was not as relaxing as I imagined, as the village's church kept loudly ringing its bells every 15 minutes.
The weather was excellent for hiking the next day, despite somewhat cloudy sky. My hike took me first on a cable car high above Lauterbrunnen, into a place called Grutschalp. A viewpoint provided a terrific look on the enclosing mountains and the Lauterbrunnen valley below. From there, I walked south for two hours, near the mountain's edge and next to train tracks. Many streams along the way make their way left to become waterfalls as they tumble off the mountain. I passed a small tourist village called "Murren", accessible only via train or hiking, that was mostly closed. When I reached another such village called Gimmelwald, I took another cable car back down into the valley. From there I walked back north to Lauterbrunnen, this time next to the steep slope of the mountain and the many waterfalls crashing down from above. When I reached my car again, my hotel was already closed and locked until the next season.
What Not to Do When it's Snowing
While the sky was pretty clear during my long hike of Lauterbrunnen, the clouds suddenly filled the sky right as I was leaving the village, and it started raining heavily. The previous night I looked for locations of hot springs within the Alps, and booked myself a night in Leukerbad, located about 3 hours away. The drive there turned into the wildest one I've ever had.
At first, I was still at a relatively low altitude, so I was driving for most of the time in an ever strengthening deluge. Rising up at one point the rain got so bad I could hardly see anything, and decided to stop at the side of the road in the hopes the rain calms down. It didn't. I summoned the courage to drive again, and after a long descend I reached the highway, where things got easier for a while. But then I started climbing back up into the Alps on a long and winding road. As I did so, the rain suddenly turned into snow, and that snow grew stronger and stronger, until once again I could hardly see anything. Within minutes, the road turned into an ice rink. I had to lower my speed to almost a crawl. I was only a few kilometers from Leukerbad, but I was now driving at slightly more than walking speed.
The road kept climbing and climbing, until I finally managed to read the name "Leukerbad" on a sign near a roundabout. Going straight, I realized I had no idea where the hotel was located and stopped at the side of the road to check the navigation system. That was a grave mistake. If there's one thing you do not do when driving up an icy road - it's stopping the car! Once stopped, the car could not start moving again, as the ice on the road provided absolutely no traction for the tires. As I pushed down on the gas pedal, nothing really happened except the car moving slightly sideways, but definitely not forward.
By now pretty exhausted, I figured I should try to attach the snow chains to the tires. I had never seen snow tires before, and while I did watch some youtube videos on how to attach them, I was entirely out of my element. I re-read the instructions on the chains, and stepped out of the car into the falling snow. I had no idea what the hell was going on with those chains and had no chance of managing to attach them to the tires, which were starting to get buried in the snow.
As I was re-evaluating my choices in life, I realized something: to get to the hotel I was actually supposed to make a right turn at the roundabout that I had passed. That roundabout was _down_ behind me, and I got the idea of just releasing the parking brake, putting 'er in reverse and letting the car roll its way down into the roundabout. So I did. Slowly. As I got to the roundabout (I feel the need to mention again it was in reverse), it was level enough for the tires to have enough traction to start moving forward. I started driving up again towards the hotel, hoping I managed to get myself out of that jam. But the hotel's parking lot was right after a relatively steep incline. As I clear that incline, the car lost traction again, and I had to stop it in the middle of the lot, several meters away from an actual spot. The porter came out and advised me to reverse (again) out of the lot, and park at the side of the street, which will now be in a decline for me. That worked well enough, and I could finally let out a breath. As I carried my bag into the hotel in the snow, I realized this three hour drive took me no less than five hours.
By the time I checked into the hotel, the hot springs were closed, so I could not enjoy them. I went to my room, liked it, and went back to reception to book another night. No way I went through that hell for nothing. I spent the rest of the night reading and drinking beer in the hotel's bar, which was pretty nice.
The snow did not stop for two straight days. When I went outside the next morning to check on the car, it was completely covered in a very thick layer of snow. Leukerbad is supposed to be beautiful, but the sky was so white from snow it was difficult to see anything. I spent much of the day in the hotel's warm water pool and hot tubs, fully open under the stars, with snow coming down on my head non-stop. It was awesome, especially after dark when the pool is lighted with different colors. I also walked around town a bit during the day, and saw many snow shovels hard at work clearing the roads. Where were they when I was stuck on the side of the road?
On the second day, as I was eating my breakfast, I noticed the clouds finally broke and the sun was out. Suddently I noticed that the mountains were right there in my face, and they were oh-so beautiful. I could simply not see them at all 'till then. Wanting to get into the car and leave, I now had a ton of snow to get off the car, and no tools to do it with. I spent maybe 15 minutes scooping snow off the roof, hood, side mirrors, trunk and tires, until all that was left was a thick layer of ice. To get rid of the ice, I started the engine and activated the air conditioner's defrost setting. Within about 20 minutes, enough of the ice melted for me to drive away. As I descended from the mountains, reached the highway and gained some speed, chips of ice kept flying off the roof for quite a while.
Where am I Again?
While in Leukerbad, I was considering options for my journey back to Basel. For those who are not aware, Switzerland is kinda split into two parts: the larger German speaking part, and the smaller French speaking part (closer to France). I thought I should probably visit the latter side too, so I mostly looked for options near Lake Geneva. Montreux, right on the eastern edge of the lake, seemed like the best option, as it provided the shortest drive back to Basel.
As I drove west, the signs (and names of the towns) turned from German to French, and I could swear the buildings took on a different, more "traditional" European design. I drove into Montreux and checked into a hotel located right on the lake. It was sunny outside and somewhat cool. I quickly left the room and went for a walk on the lake's promenade, which had a lot of sitting options, plenty of fishermen and many ducks. There were also a bunch of statues, some of famous jazz artists, and also one of Freddie Mercury, who together with Queen recorded six albums in Montreux.
In the evening, I went to see a movie in a theater located across the street from the hotel, and went to play Blackjack in the city's casino.
The next day, I drove all the way back to Basel. I stopped in Bern for a while, where I went to do some laundry in one of the weirdest laundromats, which is actually a bar/laundromat with live music. There wasn't any live music as I was there, but I enjoyed sitting at the bar while waiting for my clothes.
My flight back home left pretty early in the morning of the final day, so I booked a room in Saint Louis close to the airport. I seem to remeber going to the casino in Basel, located right on the border with Saint Louise, but now I'm not so sure I even remember correctly. What I do remember is walking to a supermarket in Saint Louise in the evening, and it being so cold that I said to myself "God damn, I have no idea how they stand it, I have to get back home." So yeah, I started missing the warmth of Israel after a while, but I flew back home satisfied with a pretty great trip.