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Trip Report Back from Berner Oberland and Engadin Valley, but lost my voice

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I'm back from my European trip, trying to catch up on work, and dealing with loss of voice, so my trip report will come in installments as I can find the time.

The scenario was I had a meeting in Vienna, but I wanted to spend most of my solo vacation time outdoors with snow capped mountains, fields of wildflowers, and tinkling cow bells. My easiest/cheapest airports to choose from were Zurich, Munich, and Prague. After frustrating attempts to choose among train accessible resorts in the Austrian Tyrol (all are the prettiest with the most trails, trains, and lifts according to their tourist information), discouragement on this board, and rains/floods, I decided to go to Switzerland for my mountains.

I had been to the Berner Oberland once with my husband for a few days and have always wanted to go back, so I chose that as my known quantity, then also chose the Engadin Valley as my something new. I was hesitant about my choices because they involved several long train trips with multiple changes versus shorter trains with fewer changes if I stayed in Austria. In the end, I enjoyed my time in Switzerland, though as a I passed through the Tyrol on the train I could see that the valleys west of Innsbruck would probably have suited me as well.

After the nonstop flight to Zurich, the toughest part of my first day was finding my way through the airport, waiting in a slow line to purchase my Swiss half-fare card, purchasing my groceries, and dashing onto a crowded train. Many of the trains I used were crowded and hot. I only made a reservation on the Zurich-Salzburg train, which was recommended. I traveled second class, bought tickets day of travel, and found out when station not manned that I should select the child option on the machine to get the half-price fare. The online "create your personal timetable" option on the Swiss rail website enabled me to have trip options printed on one page before I left home. The ticket agents were happy to print out an updated itinerary that showed current platforms when I purchased a ticket and chose a train. Thanks to posters on this board, I knew about pressing the button to get the train to stop at small towns in the Engadin Valley (some trains had recordings announcing stations and "on demand"; others did not). I pressed a button a sign at the Guarda station that looked like it would tell the train to stop to pick me up; the sign told me something I did not understand in German. The train did stop, but I don't know if my actions had any influence on that.

As the train made its slow progress along the lake to Interlaken and then into the valley, the peeks we got of the highest Alps reminded me of why I had wanted to return to this region. Last time we stayed in Wengen, so this time I chose Mürren to get a different perspective. That means my trip to my first hotel consisted of: plane, train, train, train, train, cable car, train, short walk. The cool temperature in Mürren was a welcome relief to summer heat. My 10 franc extra valley view room at the Alpina Hotel (3rd floor, no lift) was ready, so I could shower and unpack before setting out to explore the area. By the time I got back outside, the scattered clouds had changed to solid clouds and light rain that persisted into the night, so no first day hike with views :-(

I like to book my hotels before I arrive in a town by rail. When trying to be flexible and not book, I have run into the "no room at the inn" problem. On this trip I decided to book two nights in Mürren, then flex night, then two nights in Samedan, then flex night. With unpredictable mountain weather, I wanted to have the ability to stay on if another day would mean clear skies or move on if rain persisted. I ended up staying 3 nights in Mürren and only 2 nights in Samedan.

Each day in Mürren I had a mix of rain and partly cloudy. One day the sun was in the morning and another in the afternoon/evening. There was no pattern, so no way to predict or plan. Sometimes the cloud/fog was solid to my balcony and other times the Eiger was in full view with clear sky.

When I awoke to fog, I decided to go to Brienz. I had read about the wooden carvings and houses and I am an architecture buff, so it sounded interesting. Walk, train, cable car, train, train and I was in Brienz. I enjoyed wandering along the few streets, looking at the houses, then when the shops opened I visited two wood carving workshops and watched a bear's hair being finished and a nativity figure just starting out. I like watching craftsmen at work, so found this entertaining, but the workshops were hot. As the skies were looking clearer back toward Interlaken, I decided to forgo the slow boat and jump back on a train to the valley with hopes of a hike with a view. A line in the kondetorei delayed my reacquaintance with German pastries. I chose to train up to Wengen, cable up to Mannlichen, walk the panorama trail (just opened due to late snow), and train, cable car, train back to Mürren.

Great choice! I had time to make some purchases at the bakery in Wengen, then arrived to partly cloudy skies with occasional sleet. It was a beautiful afternoon. The fast moving clouds would obscure then reveal the Eiger without warning. Once away from the stations, there were just occasional hikers with a friendly greeting, a short conversation, or a request to take their photo. Several times I chose a bench to sit on and enjoy my snacks and the changing landscape. Sure, full sunshine and unobscured mountain views would be great, but this was still heaven. At least there were only isolated stretches of snow rather than the snow packed trail I followed 15 years ago in June. When I reached Kleine Scheidegg, the clouds shifted again and now I could see much of the Mönch and hints of the Jungfrau. I settled in for another snack and view session, watching the Chinese tour groups being herded to their private trains up/down the Eiger. I also saw a Japanese woman talking on her phone, walking back/forth across the tracks and waving--I think she was trying to get someone back home to see her on the webcam. Quite entertaining. I had considered taking the train up to a higher station and walking down, but some trails were closed due to snow. Eventually I drug myself away from the view. It was folk night at the sports center and I didn't want to miss the free/donation requested amateur show.

The show was a delight to me. Amateurs from several villages came together for 1.5 hour show--brass band, dancers, yodeling choir, flag tosser and "almost professional" alpine horn blowers. Who could ask for more? How about a glass of wine or apple juice after the show? Two young girls were dancing for only the second time. My kind of night out.

As the rain started again that night, I was resigned to my last day in the area without views, but decided to stay a third night anyway just in case of clearing like the previous day. Many hotels were full, but I could get a single for another night.

Ever the optimist, I decided to peek out of the shutters when I awoke and found the Eiger in full view with sun rising behind the clouds, giving a glorious glow. It was the clearest view I had seen of the other mountains. I quickly turned on the TV to the mountain top webcams and saw Piz Gloria was clear for the first time in days. And I wasn't ready! I dashed (as much as possible in my tiny room) to find clothes, fleece, rain jacket, camera, etc. for a trip up the gondola between returning repeatedly to the balcony to see the changing colors on the mountain. Abandon this glorious view for the potential higher view? Stay and enjoy this view and never know what the other one is like? My indecision and late start meant I missed the first gondola, so I sat in the glassed dining room and ate my breakfast with the Eiger before catching the second gondola. I forgot to check the TV before leaving the hotel in a hurry. While we had decent views swinging up, the higher we went, the thicker the clouds. Really eerie standing in a gondola in which you cannot see beyond the glass. At the top, I stood alone on the freezing balcony, catching glimpses of the mountains as the clouds moved quickly here and there. After an hour, I caught the gondola down through solid cloud. Some people who had taken the first gondola said the view was totally clear all the way to the top, but the clouds started moving in as soon as they reached the restaurant. Lost opportunity due to my slow start, but I did enjoy the view of the Eiger.

With rain starting, I decided to follow the valley rainy day suggestions. I walked down the Gimmelwald, then back on the gondola to the floor. I walked along the river and caught enough clear sky to sit on a bench enjoying my lunch by the rushing water. I walked to Trümmelbach Falls (a few hundred yards on the road--yikes!) where I marveled at nature and the humans for different reasons. An interesting place. As a crowd grew for the local bus, I decided the rain was changing to drizzle, so I walked on to Lauterbrunnen and the larger Coop store before heading up to my mountain home for the last night.

Observations:

Weather in the mountains is totally unpredictable so being flexible and not having my heart set on a particular train ride, hike, or view made it easier for me to enjoy what I found. Get up early and if the weather is good, go! One can always catch up on sleep or food later.

I knew this to be a tourist destination, so I wasn't expecting solitude until away from the trains and gondolas. People watching in these areas can be fun, but the noise and lack of consideration for other tourists gets on my nerves.

I don't dislike tour groups as much as I used to. Tour groups used to irritate me with the way a large group would shuffle along blocking the way so an individual can't walk at a normal pace. I eventually learned how to anticipate their movements sort of like a school of fish and work around them or visit sites in a random order while they progress linearly. It used to bother me that each of 50 especially Japanese tourists from a bus had to stand individually in front of each site to have a photo taken while I waited for my shot. Now I just have lots of photos with strangers in them. I say they are people I met while at the attraction.

This time I was surprised by large multi-generational family groups. Grandma/grandpa, two or three adult couples, plus assortment of children from strollers to teenagers made up loud and annoying family groups of 6-12 people or so. Unlike the tour groups, they are unpredictable, with children running and screaming from mother to grandmother to sibling, grandma or grandpa wanting to sit down and rest, husbands shouting at their relatives to hurry up, teenagers wandering off to be shouted at to return to the fold. None of this is happening in a language I can understand, but the body language and voice volume and tone is unmistakable. I get the feeling half the family didn't want to come on the trip and is going to make sure everyone else is as miserable as they are. Women are pretending they can't hear through fabric or under umbrellas. The toddlers and infants are just doing what any children that age would do being dragged from bus to admission line, to steep staircases, to scary caves. One of the worst was on the small train down from Kleine Scheidegg at the end of the day with hot, tired travelers settling in to watch the view, snap photos, and relive the day with their traveling companions. Two couples had to sit about 15 ft apart from each other. So the two men shouted at each other most of the route to Wengen, over the noise of the train and open windows. When the second man finally stopped shouting back, the first man sang loudly to his wife, who seemed quite embarrassed. I smiled broadly when they departed at Wengen and I continued on to Lauterbrunnen.

Towns in area are quite different. Last time we were in Wengen. I liked being up high, choice of cable car or train to continue up, shops, laundry, etc. This time I enjoyed quiet Mürren, but it does require a longer commute to anything and food costs more. A hotel has 24-hr self service laundry and there is a small coop and bakery. Lauterbrunnen's parking lot contained 2-3 Contiki Tour buses, cheap internet and cafes, and a larger grocery. Definitely a busier town than the other two and different feel.

There are still trails I haven't tried and views I haven't seen, so I can envision another trip to the area trying to balance timing of weather vs. crowds. I met a couple doing an 11-night hut-to-hut hike, but I think that may be too much for me. I'll also pass on the paragliding. I've got an Eiger sunrise on my screensaver for now, so that will have to do.

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    Thanks for your report. We are going over 8/31 for ten nights, and appreciate validation of our thoughts to get up early and catch the first trains up! We are staying in Interlaken after Lucerne.

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    Well, one day early and first train would have worked to get views and another day trains after 3pm got the best views, so early is not always better, but at least you have the option to go or fall back in bed. The live webcams from the tops of the mountains are a big help and can be seen online or on hotel TV channels.

    I had decided on the Engalin Valley for my second stop, largely influenced by this board. Because of mountains and rail routes, it would take me 6-7 hours to get to my second destination, Samedan. I thought I would buy my train ticket the night before departure, but there was actually a line in the Mürren station and I was tired, so I waited until the next morning. The next morning the ticket window wasn't open and the the only option on the ticket machine showing 1/2 price was the child ticket. I decided to buy a child/1/2 price ticket only to Lauterbrunnen so if I was wrong, the penalty would not be too high. I asked the fellow handling the cable car if correct ticket with my 1/2 fare card, and he nodded "OK". I had learned over the previous trips that people did not use the underground passage in the Lauterbrunnen station, crossing the tracks and even shortcutting through trains. So I headed to the ticket office and purchased my ticket to Samedan, once again asking for updated printout of itinerary and platforms for trains, then headed straight out and into the train. I was more alert that day, so the transfers weren't bad. Train was crowed from Zurich, but open after Chur with locals and tourists sharing the space with each offering the other the view out the window on their side when we were approaching a tunnel or bridge. A nice trip, but I think would be more impressed by the bridges standing on the ground seeing the train than from inside the train.

    Samedan was an interesting contradiction. Old center clean and deserted. Traffic zooming up the few small through streets. A few shops. Lovely architecture. Limited English spoken even in the tourist office. The desk clerk said the beauty is that it is a real town of the region whereas others such as St Moritz could be found at any ski resort in the world. The train ticket seller was great, helping me each day. Because it was cloudy and my hotel did not participate in the free public transport program, I chose to take a train/bus to Guarda that afternoon. Sure glad I bought a ticket for the bus--it is quite a climb to the town. The town was deserted except for the half dozen of us from the bus, similar number of tourists who came out of hotels, and a few hikers who arrived in town to join us on the return ride. It took me only an hour to wander the few streets, look at the architecture, and snap lots of photos. I'm glad I did not book a hotel in such a small, isolated town without a car.

    The next morning I booked a R/T ticket to Poschiavo, understanding that I could get off/on the trains on the route, hike part way, etc. as I decided. The morning views of the glaciers were good from the train. I opted not to ride up to the Bernina because clouds were moving in and I wanted to see more before the rain. I followed my plan of asking the train to stop and let me off at Cadera to walk down to Poschiavo. As I waved at the conductor and the train pulled away, I thought "What have I done?" The station was a small unmanned building. I had a trail map from the rail site and had seen the video of hiking the entire route, so I knew I only had to find the connecting train to get on the main route to Poschiavo, but no trail was obvious. I walked down to a house and followed a driveway under the railroad and to a road. Now which way? I walked up hill toward where a family was cutting and raking hay and saw a signpost that I recognized from the video. Relief! When I reached the signpost, there was a map and statement in German and Italian? about a detour for the trail. Great! I understood that part, but I couldn't tell if the road was the original route or the detour route, so I asked the locals for help and the farmer graciously told me the road was the detour and I was on the right track. Many thank yous later, I was on my way. Once past the detour and on the trail in the woods, I was deep in thought about the steepness in places, tree roots, etc. to keep me alert while hiking alone when I heard a shout behind me. Stepping aside and looking back, I saw the first of a dozen mountain bikers sailing down the narrow track. Various "merci", "danke" as they passed, then I was alone again. The easy walk took only an hour. I was surprised how the noise from the auto traffic is amplified and echoes in the valley, reminding me that it is not a park, but a working valley where people live.

    I stopped in a jewelry shop in Poschiavo that sells local stones that were really pretty. Would have made a nice, expensive souvenir. I thought I picked up a business card, but can't find it or I would share the name/address. It was a coupld of blocks off the square. There was some type of sports car rally in the area so little two-seaters were zooming through town.

    Heading back toward Samedan, the clouds were thick and rain had started. I stayed with my plan to get off at Bernina Suot and walk down to Morteratsch. After a while the trail enters a nice wood and follows a tumbling stream then large waterfall. While standing on a bridge on the stream, I heard a child's cry downstream. Oh no! I hurried on, but found a small child with balloon walking with mother and grandmother, followed by a women holding an umbrella and large case and a man with a music stand. This is along a meadow trail near the highway/railroad leading to Morteratsch. This was getting interesting. They greeted me as they passed, then as I entered the wood again, I saw their origin--a wedding party where the guests were releasing their balloons. This day was bringing many unexpected experiences. I had a vague idea about stopping at a food tent I had seen by the hotel/restaurant at the train station then maybe walking toward the glacier. But the wedding guests packed the tent waiting for the train and the rain and clouds made walking toward the glacier unappealing, so I caught the train back to Samedan and a hot shower to warm up.

    I thought I might stop in at some of the 100-year railroad anniversary events in the valley, but the persistent rain dampened my enthusiasm for walking among tents with food, music, and arts/crafts, struggling with my limited German, so I gave it a pass.

    My hotel in Samedan, the Bernina 1865, was an interesting confusion. I negotiated a discount price online, then asked for a quiet room. I was given a room literally over the road (it bridges a road) and under the breakfast room. I complained and was moved to a much better location. The rooms use the old fashioned keys on rings with large wood fobs, but you also need a card to turn on electricity. There is a very small safe in the room that is not attached to anything. Front desk opened 45 minutes later than sign stated. Shuttle pick up from train station, but only if you can email at least 2 days in advance of exact arrival time. Nicely remodeled.

    The next morning I decided the clouds meant rain again, so I would spend my flex night in Salzburg rather than Samedan. As I ate breakfast, the clouds started to lift, but I thought it might be a trick and went to visit my helpful clerk at the station who let me purchase my train ticket and seat reservation with a combination of my remaining francs + credit card. I took the route through the valley and on to Klosters.

    Observations:
    The Engalin Valley is quite varied from narrow with close peaks to wide with flat fields. I can see how one could easily spend several days in this area with the various hikes. The small towns in the valley are truly small towns with few tourist attractions or activities. The trail along the Bernina Express route is easy to follow and provides an easy hop off-hop on type of hiking.
    Speaking and reading German really helps in this area where many menus were only in German.

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    Interesting report.

    Regarding the small stations where you have to ask the train to stop, how do you determine to which station this procedure applies?

    I'm planning a trip for 2015 and I think I will be taking a trip from St. Gallen to Lichtensteig and Watwill. Any way to determine if those, or other stations, would require a stop request?

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    Hi Kay. We had a similar experience in the Berner Oberland - it rained our whole day of driving there (from Austria) and our first day. On the second day, we decided we were going to up the Mannichlen lift anyway. Well, those plans were changed when we were told that the rain we were experiencing in Wengen was snow at the higher elevations! We had flimsy raincoats and sneakers – definitely not appropriate for hiking in snow.

    Thankfully, on our third day, we had glorious sunshine and beautiful views with the recent snow on the highest peaks. We didn’t’ get to hike, but we rode the cable cars in a huge circle and did get to walk around a bit and get some really nice pictures.

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    Twk,
    I had been alerted to the Stop on Request button on this board. I asked at the Samedan station when buying my ticket, the agent assured me the stops did not require a button, but he was incorrect. Most of the newer trains I was on had an electronic board that displayed the next stop and a voice that stated the name with "stop on request" or "halt on request" in multiple languages. One showed the names, but no announcement so maybe the speakers were turned down. When you see the name of the station you want, you push the obvious yellow button and it lights up green. When I got on in Poschiavo, some people pushed the button for the first stop, which was just a barn. The conductor came to check and they told him their mistake (I think). They later pressed the button for Cavaglia to get off. Anyway, there is no harm in pressing the button even if it is a scheduled stop.

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