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Melnq8 Jan 28th, 2014 06:13 PM

A Winter Wander – Engadine and Berner Oberland
December 5-28, 2013 (inclusive of a week in Germany)

About us:

We’re cold weather loving American expats living in Perth, Australia. December through March is beastly hot in our neck of the woods and summertime Christmas just isn’t our thing, so this year we fled, trading white sand beaches for white covered mountains.

Flights from Perth are neither cheap nor short. We flew Perth-Singapore-Zurich outbound, Munich-Singapore-Perth inbound on Singapore Airlines; AUD $4,350.04 for the two of us, $234 of which was for preferred seating (exit row) on the long flights (13 hours from Singapore to Zurich, just over 11 hours from Munich to Singapore). The flight from Perth to Singapore added another five hours.

We love Switzerland and have visited the Berner Oberland several times. We’ve also made previous trips to Germany; when we lived in Kuwait our flights to the US were routed through Frankfurt. A stopover in Germany was always welcome, especially in December for a big dose of holiday cheer, pork and adult beverages, which were pretty hard to come by in the Middle East.

The Engadine has long been on my radar, and after tormenting the incredibly patient, helpful and Engadine-savvy Ingo (thank you, thank you, thank you!), we were finally good to go.

I’ve planned many trips over the years, and I have to say that this was probably one of the most difficult. Deciding how long to stay in which towns, and finding/ booking the Engadine accommodation was particularly challenging. I spent so much time figuring out the Engadine portion that I didn’t do a bit of research for the BO or Germany, feeling pretty confident since we’re relatively familiar with both.

Our itinerary, Switzerland:

Samedan, Upper Engadine – five nights
Scuol, Lower Engadine – five nights
Lauterbrunnen – four nights

Our itinerary, Germany:

Rothenburg ob der Tauber – three nights
Munich – five nights

I’ll cover Switzerland in this post, and then add a link to the Germany report towards the end. A word of warning: I write very detailed trip reports. I’ll try to rein myself in, but no promises.

Switzerland has a well-deserved reputation of being expensive, but after living in pricy Perth for five years, it felt like pretty good value to us. We saved money by booking apartments, which we prefer anyway. My research indicated that rates went up on December 14 in the Upper Engadine and a week later in the Lower Engadine and Berner Oberland. Therefore our strategy was to be out of Switzerland altogether by December 21, which not only saved money, but enabled us to avoid the 7-14 day minimum booking requirements over the Christmas holiday and the subsequent crowds.

December 5 & 6: Planes and trains

What can I say, flights are flights; predictably long, uncomfortable and tortuous in coach.
However, this was the first time we’d flown the Airbus A380, a plane I swore I’d never step foot on; the number of people it can accommodate just wigs me out. We boarded in the dark and arrived in the dark, so I never got a good look at the exterior of this massive plane. We were seated in the back cabin in row 54 and didn’t leave our area, so it felt pretty much like any other SIA coach flight, although the seats were significantly more comfortable than in the 777 from Perth to Singapore and it was incredibly quiet. It also took a VERY long time to deplane. The food was surprisingly good on both outgoing flights, pretty average on the return.

The video on my entertainment system didn’t work on the Perth to Singapore flight; a helpful flight attendant made several attempts to correct it, but to no avail. Before we landed, those of us affected were given S $75 vouchers to use towards in-flight duty free items as compensation. While I truly appreciate the gesture, in-flight duty free doesn’t much interest me and S $75 doesn’t go very far (I ended up with six – one ounce tubes of L’Occitane hand cream which sold for $71).

We had a two hour layover in Changi Airport, so in an effort to limber us up for the upcoming 13 hour ordeal, we both got a 40 minute, S $58 neck and back massage at My Foot in Terminal Three. My masseur was a brute, I was sore for days.

Some 24 hours after leaving Perth, we arrived in Zurich, exhausted and discombobulated. It was 32c when we left Perth (about 90F), 2c when we arrived in Zurich about (35F). JOY!

We walked from the airport to the attached train station, bought our train passes* (15 day Swiss Saver Pass, 405 CHF each), cashed up, caffeinated (13.20 CHF for a double tall latte and a tall chai at Starbucks, ouch), picked up some lunch provisions and began our 3.5 hour train journey to Samedan, which included two train changes, always fun with luggage.

*Anyone who has ever traveled by Swiss Rail knows that figuring out which pass, if any, is the best deal for their particular itinerary is half the battle in planning a trip to Switzerland. I’d crunched the numbers based upon what we hoped to cover, and the 15 day Swiss Saver Pass was the clear winner. It’s also incredibly convenient, as you can hop on and off trains and buses at will without having to stop to buy tickets.

At Chur we switched to the Rhaetian Railway, now on the Bernina Express route; the scenery beautiful, churches dotting hilltops, a blanket of snow on the ground. Heaven.

We arrived to a cold fierce wind in Samedan around 2 pm (9 pm Perth time). After sputtering a bit trying to find our accommodation, exhausted, grouchy and dragging luggage, we located our apartment building down the road from the train station. We got settled, and then walked to the nearby Coop grocery store to pick up breakfast provisions.

I absolutely could not stay upright a minute longer, I crawled into bed at 4 pm. Bill resisted, but joined me about 30 minutes later. It felt so good to lie down that the rock hard mattress barely fazed us. We slept for 13 hours.

The apartment:

Nice place, this. The bed was a bit odd, very low to the floor and basically a mattress on a recessed platform. Not particularly middle-age friendly, but we managed. The unit was spotless, fresh and incredibly quiet, spacious and well-equipped, the internet fast. The two sinks in the bathroom were a bonus, but the kitchen range hood was poorly positioned for anyone over four feet tall; we both repeatedly banged our head against its corner, inflicting pain and drawing curses. We immediately lowered the temp to 20c and cracked a few windows so we could breathe while our bodies adjusted to the dry climate.

The apartment was 690 CHF for five nights, all inclusive, paid in full two months in advance via bank transfer (USD $35 to transfer from our US credit union). We were required to sign a contract and the cost was non-refundable. Although we transferred 690 francs only 678 were received, so we assumed the additional 12 had been kept by the Swiss bank as a transfer fee; making the total cost 733 CHF, roughly 146 francs per night. Not a bad deal considering three star hotels in the area run about 220 CHF per night with breakfast. We dealt with Claudia Colombo-Pfister at Samedan Ferien, and although we never met her, she was a pleasure to work with online.

We self-catered our breakfasts while in Samedan and Scuol, easily falling into to an artery-clogging daily fry-up with pancetta, eggs and rosti, occasionally mixing things up with walnut bread, Boursin cheese and clementines.

We also consumed entirely too many gummy bears and chocolate bars, seemingly unable to sit on a train without rummaging in a backpack for something sweet.

To be continued...

swandav2000 Jan 28th, 2014 09:36 PM

Nice start! Looking forward to more!


love_travel_Aus Jan 28th, 2014 11:48 PM

Thanks ever so much - a great start.

Really empathise with that exhausted feeling after the long haul from Aust. then the train rides in Switzerland - but it is certainly well worth the effort involved in doing it this way.

I notice the site indicates that linen and towels are not included so do these get added to the total final cost or was I misunderstanding this?

Saw this earlier today and have been saving it for a quieter time.
Will no doubt re read and follow the new parts with interest and envy as an escape from the heat forecast for us over the coming days.

Melnq8 Jan 29th, 2014 01:56 AM

love_travel_Aus -

Yeah, traveling from Perth is an ordeal. We've been discussing our next trip to the US and I'm tired just thinking about it. Hot here too, I'm so over summer and we've still got Feb and March to get through.

Regarding the apartment rental - despite the website, everything was included, even internet. I made an inquiry and was given an all inclusive rate.

annhig Jan 29th, 2014 02:55 AM

after our long haul OUT to OZ last year, we too have been thinking about how to make long-haul journeys more comfortable. being bumped up to Premium economy for the Sydney to HK leg helped, as did splashing out for the lounge at HK airport, but I reached a real nadir when we were over Novozibirsk with still 9 hours to go, all in the dark.

we were pretty exhausted by the time we got off the plane at LHR and by the time we got home 6 hours later, I was chewing the carpet and so desperate for sleep, I went to bed at 4pm.

on the way out it was easier as we had a 3 day stop off in HK, and we reached Brisbane almost perky. in retrospect, I wish that we'd scheduled a stop-over on the way home too.

Melnq8 - I've been looking forward to reading this TR - nice start.

Ingo Jan 29th, 2014 09:31 AM

Thanks for the praise, Melnq8. <blushing> You're welcome, that's what we're here for, eh? It's fun for me to advise, especially if posters/travellers know what they really want and do such an excellent research in advance as you did.

Apartment looks very nice, still a bit on the expensive side IMO. From seeing the rates on the website and reading that you paid 146 CHF average per day I guess that linen, final cleaning etc. were added to the normal day rate, and so it ended up as "all inclusive".

Looking forward to your next installments!


Melnq8 Jan 29th, 2014 01:48 PM

Hi Ingo -

The Samedan apartment was more expensive than the one in Scuol, that's for sure, I assume the pricing had something to do with them being so close to St Moritz, but who knows. The 146 CHF per day included linens, heating, final cleaning, internet and the bank transfer fees on both ends.

Melnq8 Jan 29th, 2014 02:38 PM

December 7: Glitz and post buses

We spent the early morning hours plotting our course for the day, later taking the train to St Mortiz to explore and seek out the tourist office. We were amazed at the cavernous heated parking area and the incredibly long enclosed escalators that rose from the train station to transport the well-heeled up to town, not to mention the Zamboni-like floor cleaner being driven in circles across the massive floor space. All of this instantly confirmed what we’d heard about St Mortiz, validating its reputation for glitz and glamour. Playground of the rich and famous aside, I’d read that St Mortiz was a charmless concrete jungle. Concrete yes, but we found plenty of charm, particularly in the town center, although I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that the sheer size of the hotels was a bit of a shocker.

The high wind and pre-season closures limited our hiking options, so we walked the trail from St Mortiz to Pontresina, which begins alongside Lake St Mortiz, then leads through the forest, (3.3 miles, 90 minutes, easy). It was a nice little walk; we made a donation for bird seed at a trailside stand and spent some time with the birds.

Pontresina has a population of about 2,000; I was expecting a smallish village; so the large hotels clinging to the hillside were a bit of a surprise. Petrol was selling for 1.84 CHF per liter, which even makes Perth petrol prices sound good.

A kid’s cross-country ski competition was underway near the train station. We watched for awhile, and then called into Hotel Station Restaurant for some fabulous full fat Swiss hot chocolate. The minute we saw their wood fire oven and pizza making station we decided to stay on for lunch, which turned out to be an excellent choice (58 CHF for a shared pizza, two hot chocolates, two beers, two gluhwein). Afterwards, we worked off a few calories by exploring town (hilly!), most of which was closed, this being Saturday afternoon. I was mystified when Bill suggested we find the post office; I didn’t make the ‘post’ connection until we were standing in front of the Pontresina post office looking at the post bus schedule (the Swiss Postbus system provides regional and rural bus service). And I’ve just this minute learned that the logo on their buses and bus stops is a posthorn. So there you go.

We thought we’d take the bus to Sils, but the one we needed came and went as we stood at the bus stop trying to sort out the schedule. Oops. Another wasn’t due for an hour, so instead we decided to return to Samedan. While waiting for the bus I saw movement out of the corner of my eye and turned to see a woman slip on the ice and crash to the ground. She fell hard, bless her heart. Her distracted companion didn’t even notice she’d fallen until she grabbed his leg for assistance. It was a reminder to tread lightly on the ice covered streets.

From Samedan we took the train back to St Mortiz to walk the three mile loop around the lake. The sunny afternoon had drawn lots of people out; it was beautiful day for a stroll. We were amused by the elaborate lakeside porta loo, which, this being St Mortiz, probably had heated toilet seats and a butler.

Jet lag and fatigue had settled in but good; we returned to Samedan and that rock of a bed.

To be continued...

Melnq8 Jan 29th, 2014 07:04 PM

December 8: Buon giorno

Another early start, which was just as well; days this time of year are incredibly short, the sun rising at 8 am, not reaching the valley until about 11 am and then completely disappearing by 4:30 pm. It was cold, 1c, but a sunny day was predicted so we decided to take the Bernina Express. It was Sunday; only one Bernina Express train (with the panoramic windows) was operating and it didn’t leave until 11.21 am. Undeterred, we caught a train to Pontresina and then boarded the Regio train which follows the Bernina Express route to Tirano, Italy (a very nice train by the way). As with the previous day, the train stations were deserted at this hour; we had an entire car all to ourselves and were able to open the tall windows at will, facilitating our photo taking, of which there was quite a lot.

It took just over two hours to reach Tirano; the snow slowly disappearing en route. In the short time we’d been in the area, we’d noticed how different the architecture is from the Berner Oberland, no wood chalets, instead, imposing stone buildings. A slight disappointment at first, but I had yet to discover the magic of sgraffito. Our train was empty, but those heading in the opposite direction were packed. The minute we crossed the border into Italy, it felt different; slightly disheveled and run down, untidy.

We wandered Tirano aimlessly, the whole idea being the train ride, not the destination. We popped into a coffee shop (Caffe’ Merizzi), greeted warmly with a big ‘buon giorno’. Faced with yet another language we don’t speak, we ordered what we knew, cappuccino. Ooooh, they were good…and cheap (1.20 Euro each).

When we returned to the train station we discovered we’d read the arrivals schedule instead of the departures; we had two hours to kill before the next train, or an hour before the next bus. So back to town we went, eventually ending up at the café again. It was busy; it didn’t take long for us to realize we wouldn’t be making the bus. We dawdled instead, taking up residence at a window seat, the sun finally cresting the surrounding mountains, Bill enjoying the Grimburgen Double, me the gluhwein. We were surprised when presented with a complimentary pail of chips, then later with two mini roll-up nibbles, a nice touch (and good timing as we were getting peckish - two beers, one gluhwein, a warm place to cool our heels, 13.50 Euro). We thoroughly enjoyed our first, albeit brief, foray into Italy.

The return train was busy, our car so full that we could barely move. We detrained in the picturesque town of Poschiavo, leaving the throng behind. I immediately fell in love with the narrow cobblestone laneways and Romanesque/Gothic/Baroque architecture from the 16th - 19th centuries - incredible. The town was seemingly deserted; cafes closed. We meandered, ending up at the only open business we could find, Café Flora. With the help of a bilingual customer, we learned the kitchen was closed, but they had ‘snacks’. We dined outdoors, freezing our bits off; the sun long gone from the valley at 2:30 pm. Our Paninis were very average, but enjoyed nonetheless, surrounded by history (25 CHF for two sandwiches, a glass of wine and a beer).

We explored while awaiting the next train, seeing more cats than people. Our train back to Pontresina was eight minutes late, very un-Swiss-like; the folks on the platform were visibly restless. At Pontresina we caught a train back to Samedan. We’d planned to attend an Advent concert in St Moritz Bad, but we were just too wrecked to sort out the logistics, making it another early, jet-lagged night.

To be continued...

Ingo Jan 30th, 2014 10:25 AM

I'm enjoying your trip report tremendously. Very interesting to see the area through the eyes of a first-timer again.

Yeah, there are quite some (grand) hotels in Pontresina ... and as (almost) all over the Upper Engadine building apartment complexes is starting to affect the beauty of the area. Annoys the hell out of me.

Love Poschiavo! The town is even more charming in summer, when it's green, quite vibrant and all the cafes/restaurants are open. Quite a lot of things to see and do there ... did you see the ossuary?

Melnq8 Jan 30th, 2014 01:47 PM

No, we missed the ossuary - I just now looked it up to see what you were talking about! Yet another reason to go back.

So much to see and do, so little time.

kja Jan 30th, 2014 03:46 PM

I adored the Engadine and am glad you did, too. Thanks for sharing your experiences!

Melnq8 Jan 30th, 2014 05:25 PM

We certainly did kja, already talking about our next visit.

Melnq8 Jan 30th, 2014 05:58 PM

December 9: Hairpin turns and history

Funny how it’s the little things that so frustrate we monolinguals; trying to operate the oven and the elaborate key card system on the washing machine or deciphering the emergency evacuation instructions written in four languages, none of them ours, recognizing television programs but only understanding the occasional word. We felt completely illiterate; I can’t imagine how Europeans must feel having to deal with the likes of us. Fortunately, most Swiss speak English better than we do, so communicating is relatively easy. When asked if they speak English, the response is often “a little” and then they proceed to out-English the person who asked.

We’ve stayed in accommodation in Switzerland with rules restricting shower times, enforcing quiet hours, etc. I had to wonder if we were breaking any rules with our jetlagged showers and early morning pancetta frying.

We left our apartment at 7:15 am and explored the center of Samedan in the dark; thus far we’d only seen the Coop and the street that led from our apartment to the train station.

Engadine architecture was really growing on me, the imposing stone houses, the beautiful ancient churches, the cobblestone streets.

Working from my haphazard notes, Bill had hammered out a plan for the day; we boarded an early train to St Moritz, and then caught a bus to Sils. Once in Sils, we followed a random walk trail until it disappeared, and then climbed the steep road to Hotel Waldhaus for some views over town (total of 90 minutes, three miles) It was cold…very cold, the sun not yet reaching the valley. The trail and road were covered in ice; Yak Trax to the rescue. A warm café was calling; I really wanted to linger in this lovely little town, but off-season bus service is infrequent, winter days are short, so we forged on.

Hairpin turns and incredible scenery awaited us on the Maloja Pass; we were amazed at how our bus driver negotiated the impossibly tight corners and how courteous the drivers in the opposite lane were. We eventually descended into Promontogno (which we’re told doesn’t see the sun for three months in winter), and connected to a waiting van-sized post bus that took us up the skinny, winding road to Soglio, perched atop a ledge overlooking the Bregaglia Valley, a stone’s throw from the Italian border. Oh, how I love the Swiss transportation system!

We met a gentleman from Zurich who told us Soglio is a chestnut growing area; he also pointed out the only open restaurant in town, which we later discovered had opened for the season that very day, us their first customers.

We explored the narrow cobblestone passages and historic buildings of Soglio, vowing to return to explore the hiking trails someday. We were both taken with this peaceful and unique village. The sky was overcast; but the views from Soglio must be spectacular on a brilliant sunny day.

Lunch was at Albergo Stua Granda, where we chatted up the lovely proprietress. There was no menu, we were just asked what might interest us, and offered a few suggestions. We both went for the barley soup, which came out beautifully dressed with a lattice of pastry. The carnivore also had a plate of veal with rosti, proclaiming it melt-in-your-mouth delicious (68 CHF with beer and warm spiced wine).

As we awaited our return bus to Promontogno, we were entertained by a handful of goats wandering up the road.

We returned the way we’d come, eventually ending up back in St Mortiz, where I discovered Laderach champagne truffles (yum!). We had drinks at Hauser Hotel, (most expensive to date, 16 CHF for a beer and a gluhwein). There were some pretty fabulous looking desserts coming from their confectionary; I regret not ordering something decadent.

Then it was back to Samedan and yet another early night; it’d been a great day all around.

To be continued...

Ingo Jan 31st, 2014 08:08 AM

Sounds like a very enjoyable day; right up my alley. I love Soglio and the Bregaglia valley in general - been there a dozen times at least. It's most beautiful in fall with the foliage and the snow-capped peaks across the valley.

Love barley soup!

These pralines and desserts in Switzerland are not to miss! ;-)

Keep it coming!

Melnq8 Jan 31st, 2014 02:04 PM

December 10: Negotiating the ski pistes

Our last full day in the Upper Engadine; we were finally getting into the groove, better understanding the layout of the valley and the transport logistics.

Up early again, we took the train to St Moritz and the funicular to Chantarella, planning to walk to Signal. The three minute funicular ride was 12 CHF each, our Swiss Pass as useful as sodden tissue. In hindsight, we should’ve walked up and spent those francs on champagne truffles instead.

At Chantarella we floundered, unable to find the walking track. We followed an un-groomed path to Alp Laret instead; a nice trek with pretty views. We returned to Chantarella; still unable to locate the wanderweg, we walked up the road to Salastrains, and then asked restaurant staff for assistance. We were told to walk up the busy ski piste and through a ski tunnel. This seemed wrong and dangerous, but is apparently an accepted practice. Walking up a ski run not only feels weird; it’s difficult. We worked our way up the slope, hugging the edge of the piste, hoping an errant skier wouldn’t mow us down.

We finally found the groomed walking trail and subsequent uphill trudge to Trutz, a Bergrestaurant beautifully positioned near the Suvretta-Randolins ski lift; the perfect venue for lunch. We lazed on their sun terrace, lapped up barley soup and soaked up the scenery until our skin started to burn from the brilliant snowshine (36 CHF with drinks).

We continued walking towards El Paradiso, another restaurant (closed), We devoured our 437th chocolate bar while taking in the views from a nearby bench and then backtracked on foot to St Moritz via a somewhat convoluted route below the ski pistes and through Heidi’s Blumenweg (walk time 4.5 hours, 7.65 miles).

It was a beautiful day and a lovely walk, but we found the tracks in this area confusing.

Worn out, we returned to Samedan for some R&R.

To be continued...

Melnq8 Jan 31st, 2014 02:09 PM

Ingo - I appreciate your encouragement!

A question regarding Chantarella - I just looked at our ticket stubs which state: Corviglia/St Mortiz, 1 Fahrt, Erwachsen.

Wondering if we'd mistakenly purchased a ticket all the way to Corviglia instead of just to Chantarella?

PalenQ Jan 31st, 2014 02:10 PM

marking to digest this wonderful info. Sounds like a superb trip.

dreamon Jan 31st, 2014 04:02 PM

Melnq8, did you find hiking paths generally clear of snow? I've only ever visited Switzerland in spring or autumn so really have no idea of how snowy it could be. It would be nice to take the kids during the long summer holidays in Dec/Jan but would definitely want to get in some long walks. Apart from the short days, did you face any restrictions on what you could do due to the time of year?

Melnq8 Jan 31st, 2014 05:55 PM

Hi dreamon -

The majority of the tracks we walked had some snow, and quite a few had some serious ice, but there were a couple of completely dry ones. Some tracks were groomed, others weren't.

Generally speaking, if the ski area is open, the hiking/cross country/sledding/snowshoe tracks are also open and groomed. Groomed tracks are pretty easy to walk on.

There are so many tracks to choose from that finding an alternate is quite easy if you run into a closure.

We got by with our Keen hiking boots and a pair of Yak Trax, which we just carried with us in our backpacks, so we always had them. They were a lifesaver on the ice.

Most of the buses were only operating hourly; I'm not certain, but I suspect they operate more frequently during the high season. Some trains were also on a reduced schedule, such as the Bernina Express mentioned above.

Several towns in the Engadine were completely deserted and shut down. Mountain restaurants located at the top of ski lifts not yet open for the season were understandably closed, Tarasp Castle was only open on Fridays until late December, many hotels didn't open until just before Christmas, so yes, there were definitely some restrictions.

We intentionally travel pre-season, so none of this was unexpected.

If you're worried about closures, you'd do best visit after mid-December, which is probably what you'd do anyway over Aussie/Kiwi school holidays.

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