Spiez & the Thunersee: Alpine Magic Part 7

Posted on March 18, 2015 by Mickey

Welcome to the final part of Alpine Magic! In the last post, I went exploring Wengen during an amazing afternoon and evening, and then hiked to the top of the Mannlichen. In this final part of my 7 part Alpine Magic travel blog series, I visit Spiez and it’s wonderful castle on the beautiful Thunersee lake.

We had packed all our bags at Hotel Oberland in Lauterbrunnen where we had been staying, and jumped on the train out of Lauterbrunnen for Interlaken. Interlaken itself is a beautiful town that’s situated between the Thunersee and Lake Brienz, connected by the Aare river that flows between the two lakes. While I would have loved to have a day to explore Interlaken, all we had left was one afternoon before having to head back home to America, and we had chosen to spend it in Spiez. So we switched trains in Interlaken and sped off to Spiez.

Spiez, Switzerland

We arrived at the train station from Interlaken and were immediately floored by how beautiful the views were across the town and lake. Spiez is a beautiful little town to get lost in. Numerous vineyards and orchards dot the surrounding hillsides and it’s main attraction is the Schloss Spiez, or Spiez Castle. And it has a gorgeous harbor, nestled against the beautiful Thunersee! We were there on a day with perfect spring weather. There were dozens of sailboats out on the lake, kids playing football (soccer) on the lawn in front of the harbor and a lot of people just enjoying a beautiful day in an amazing Swiss town!

Our first order of business was lunch. We stopped at a place near the train station called Brasserie 66. I think I had a salad of some kind, but I honestly don’t even remember. What I do remember was the amazing view from the terrace of the restaurant towards the castle and lake. (Are you seeing a theme yet? This town had amazing views!) Once we had paid, we started our walk down to the castle. Before we got very far, I turned towards the west and saw a church standing tall among other buildings as seen in the photo below.

Spiez Church
Spiez ChurchPrints Available
A church on the hillside of Spiez, as seen from the train station

Like everywhere else in town, the walk down to the castle had gorgeous views all around. The next three photos show the views at various points on our walk down to the castle entrance.

Spiez Castle on Thunersee
Spiez Castle on ThunerseePrints Available
Panorama of Spiez castle, harbor and the Thunersee
Spiez Schloss
Spiez SchlossPrints Available
Spiez Schloss (German for castle) and it’s beautiful surroundings
Spiez Castle
Spiez CastlePrints Available
Spiez Castle with the Thunersee in the background

Schloss Spiez (Spiez Castle)

We walked by all sorts of people enjoying the amazing weather, especially as we got close to the lake. When we found the castle entrance, we were told our admission was free because of the Swiss Pass. Yet another reason the Swiss Pass was such a great deal for us! We were excited to begin exploring this castle!

The castle of Spiez was built in 933 by Rudolph II, King of Burgundy. Early on, it was settled by Freiherr von Strättligen, and has changed ownership and been passed down by many important families in the region. It has also undergone many renovations over it’s nearly 1,100 year lifespan. It went through major construction in the 13th centuries. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the castle became a residence to the von Bubenberg and von Erlach families.

In the late 1920’s, the Spiez Castle foundation purchased the castle and did some major restoration work. This included an armory with displays of many different weapons, armor and beautiful shields in displays. You can see one of the shield displays and a wall of various swords and weapons in the photos below.

Shields Display in Spiez Castle
Display of Shields
A display of shields in Spiez castle
Weapons Display in Spiez Castle
Display of Weapons
A display of weapons in Spiez castle

On the lower floors of the castle, lots of windows out onto the Spiez Harbor and towards the church show the beauty that surrounds this amazing castle. The first window below shows how thick the castle walls were closer to the ground floor. These walls were almost 10 feet thick, creating a great defensive barrier around the castle.

Spiez Castle Window
Window in Spiez Castle
A window to a view of the church in the castle
Spiez Castle Window
Another Spiez Castle Window
Another window in the castle at Spiez

Another beautiful room in the castle featured a library in a wood-paneled bookshelf with an old ceramic stove next to it. The castle was filled with beautiful and interesting treasures like these. The Spiez castle had a number of these ceramic stoves in some of the rooms throughout. I had read that these stoves were built into the walls in ways that kept the rooms cold during harsh winters without smoke pouring out into the rooms.

Spiez Castle Antiques
Antiques in Spiez Castle
Library of books and ceramic stove

The kitches of Spiez castle were set up in a way that made you visualize what life would have been like cooking centuries ago in a castle like this. Plaques were set up on the walls of the kitchen (and everywhere else in the castle) with really interesting information and facts about the room.

Spiez Castle Kitchens
Kitchen in Spiez Castle
A kitchen in the castle of Spiez

The most interesting room in the entire castle to me was the gorgeous banquet hall, which was built in 1614. It’s been renovated over the years with polished wooden floors, beautiful wooden doors and hand crafted antiques such as the hand-crafted wooden trunk and table and chairs. The room also has some beautifully created stained glass windows depicting various medieval themes along with various family portraits and an intricately designed ceiling. I shot multiple closed up images of this room from the corner and stitched them together in the photo below. This is one of my favorite photos I’ve ever taken.

The Marble Room (Elegance)
The Marble Room (Elegance)Prints Available
The banquet hall in Spiez castle.

Wooden staircases like the one below took us up into the castle tower, where thin windows out over the Thunersee and back towards the town of Spiez would have been useful for defending the castle in times of turbulence and war. The views out over the church and Thunersee were beautiful, if a bit hazy by the time we reached the top of the tower on that day.

Spiez Castle Towers
In the Spiez Castle Tower
Climbing one of the towers of Spiez Castle

After we had fully explored the beautiful castle, we walked back out towards the castle church. We had hoped to also look inside it, but a wedding ceremony was taking place, so it was obviously off-limits. Pity, as it looked beautiful from the outside at least! We spent some time wandering the castle grounds and ran into a statue of Adrian von Bubenberg along with an interesting fountain, both of which can be viewed below.

Spiez Castle Statue
Spiez Castle Statue
A statute of Adrian von Bubenberg outside of Spiez castle
Spiez Castle Fountain
Spiez Castle Fountain
A fountain outside of Spiez castle

One of the best things about the castle was the perfectly manicured gardens and the views of the harbor to the south of the castle! The garden flowers were magnificant. I don’t know whether they are this well kept through the entire summer into the fall, but in late May, the colors of the various flowers in the garden were extremely vivid. The grass and trees around the place were as vivid green as any green I’ve ever seen. And the beautiful blue-green color of the Thunersee out across the lake and in the harbor of Spiez were also extremely colorful. We wandered around enjoying the views with the rest of the tourists. Some of the images below show just how beautiful the entire area is!

Spiez Harbor
Spiez HarborPrints Available
The harbor of Spiez from just outside of the castle
Spiez Gardens
Spiez GardensPrints Available
The perfectly manicured flowers of the Spiez castle gardens
Spiez Harbor View
Spiez Harbor ViewPrints Available
Enjoying the beautiful view of the harbor at Spiez from the gardens

After this amazing afternoon through Spiez and it’s castle, it’s safe to say this town on the southwest shore of the Thunersee is an amazing place! I know in the previous blog that I sung the praises of Chamonix, Montreux, Lauterbrunnen and especially Wengen as some of my favorite towns in the world, but Spiez adds to that list! It was a great day watching all the people having fun out near the harbor, out on the Thunersee on their sailboats, exploring the castle, or enjoying lunch while looking out over the lake and mountains in the background.

Our Swiss adventure was coming to an end at this point. We enjoyed the train ride back to Zurich in the late afternoon and evening, making it back to Zurich just after sunset. I had booked us into rooms at a hotel called Park Inn as it was fairly cheap and near the airport. Thankfully they also had a shuttle. What I didn’t know, was that it was themed after the famous fast food restaurant McDonald’s. (when writing this article, I’ve found that they’ve removed the McDonald’s theme from the hotel between the time we stayed there in 2009 and now) It was actually pretty interesting. It was a really clean hotel, with an elaborite and funky design, as you can see in the photo below.

Zurich McDonalds Themed Hotel
Zurich Park Inn Room
A room in the McDonald’s theme hotel in Zurich

Our night there went good. We managed to get a good night’s sleep knowing we had a long trip home to the USA. When we got to the airport, we had an hour or so to spare and so we did a little shopping at the grocery store across from the airport. As I hadn’t really gotten any souveniers to bring back for friends and family, I dropped a good 75 swiss francs on Swiss chocolate to haul back in a checked bag. There’s not much better than Swiss chocolate to give as a souvenier from Switzerland!

As our Alpine Magic adventure in the Swiss and French Alps ended, I thought back to how amazing it was. It’s been almost 6 years since I was in Switzerland, and I’ve longed to go back ever since! While I’d love to revisit some of my favorite places there, there were a number of places I missed out on in the short time I was there that I really would like to see!

Posted under: Travel & Trip Reports

Exploring Wengen: Alpine Magic Part 6

Posted on March 16, 2015 by Mickey

In the previous Alpine Magic blog post, we explored a lot of the Berner Oberland. We took the train to Kleine Scheidegg, and up to the Jungfraujoch (also known as the Top of Europe). We also hiked to the Bachalpsee and toured the beautiful town of Grindelwald. Today’s post centers around what I consider my favorite mountain town in the world: Wengen, Switzerland.

A Magical Evening in Wengen

In the last Alpine Magic blog post, we had just gotten back to Lauterbrunnen from our hiking above Grindelwald. After an early afternoon-nap, I was refreshed and ready to explore Wengen fully. I had already visited it the day before for a nice sunrise, but really wanted to walk up and down many of the little streets and just see the entire town. However, I still had quite a bit of daylight, so I decided to walk around Lauterbrunnen a little more, shooting the image below.

Lauterbrunnen Panorama
Lauterbrunnen PanoramaPrints Available
Panorama of the beautiful town of Lauterbrunnen

At one point, I considered walking up to Wengen from Lauterbrunnen, but didn’t feel like I had enough time to do that and fully explore Wengen before the sun went down. So after shooting the above shot, I hiked back down to train station and boarded the train up to Wengen again. I could tell there would be a beautiful sunset based on the clouds in the sky, and was excited to see what kind of photos I could get from this amazing mountain town. When I arrived, I walked east from the train station towards the east side of town, which featured a lot of beautiful fields of spring wildflowers starting to bloom.

Fields of Wengen
Fields of WengenPrints Available
A path through the beautiful wildflower-filled fields of Wengen

I walked further to the north back into the various houses on the northeast side of Wengen. At one point I turned around and saw the sky was just beginning to light up in the background.

Wengen Sunset
Wengen SunsetPrints Available
The last remnants of a beautiful sunset in Wengen, Switzerland

I continued down the various roads until I looked back and saw the clouds really starting to light up at this point. It was hard not to just set the camera up in the middle of the path and start shooting photos. Every corner had another beautiful view of Wengen and the stunning Swiss Alpine scenery!

Beautiful Wengen
Beautiful WengenPrints Available
Color starts to light up in the mountains above Wengen, Switzerland

I walked around the various little pathways towards the north side of Wengen. I looked back to the south again and saw the clouds hovering over the Jungfrau were turning to vibrant pink! This was one spectacular sunset! I stopped to take the following photo between some houses in Wengen.

Vibrance Over Wengen
Vibrance Over WengenPrints Available
A vivid sunset lights up the mountains above Wengen, Switzerland

Back to the north, the clouds were also lighting up in vivid reds and pinks, but I couldn’t find a good composition to shoot from, as the trees on the north side of Wengen blocked a lot of the sky where I had walked to. Eventually the intense sunset started to subside and I continued exploring the little roads all around Wengen. I decided I wanted to just sit down and enjoy the views, and so I headed back to an area I had found the morning before when searching for a good sunrise location. The little church that’s just above the train tracks has an amazing view of the Lauterbrunnental Valley below. Even though it was getting to be night time, there was still a little post-sunset color in the sky. I always like this time of night, called the blue hour, when shooting more low-light scenes can wield interesting photographs. I managed to capture one such amazing shot below.

Dusk in Wengen
Dusk in WengenPrints Available
Post sunset color lights up a beautiful night in Wengen

After shooting this image, I sat on the benches next to the Wengen church and just admired the amazing view. I knew this was my last evening up in the Berner Oberland and I didn’t want it to end. Eventually I made my way back to the Wengen train station and down to the Hotel Oberland in Lauterbrunnen where I was staying to get some sleep. I still had the morning to go back up to Wengen and on to the Mannlichen for an unforgettable hike!

Day 10: Sunday, May 31st, 2009 – Hiking the Mannlichen!

My plan for the final morning in Switzerland was to get high up into the Alps for a nice alpine hike. I also wanted to spent a few more minutes in Wengen before leaving the Berner Oberland. Our afternoon would consist of visiting Spiez on our way back to a night in Zurich before our morning flight home the next day. My brother and his girlfriend decided they would rather visit Trummelbach Falls further down the Lauterbrunnen valley, while I would hike to the top of the Mannlichen on my own. I had originally wanted to hike from Kleine Scheidegg to Mannlichen two days before, but the route was difficult due to snow for someone in a pair of hiking shoes, shorts and a t-shirt. So I felt like at least taking the cable car up and seeing the view off both sides of the Mannlichen towards Grindelwald on the east and Wengen/Lauterbrunnen on the west side would be a great end to my time in the Bernese Alps!

I awoke early, stopping at the Lauterbrunnen bakery for some breakfast. As usual, the bakeries in Switzerland never disappoint! I enjoyed the views from the train from Lauterbrunnen to Wengen while eating my breakfast. I got to Wengen around the time the Mannlichen aerial cableway was opening. The original line from Wengen to the Mannlichen station was built in the early 1950s, and was replaced in the early 1990s after an avalance buried the lower station. This renovated aerial cableway starts near the main street from Wengen, not too far from the train station.

The hike from the cable car station to the top of the Mannlichen is only a 15-20 minute walk. I took my time to shoot photos. Unfortunately clouds really covered the views to the east towards Grindelwald and had completely blocked views of the famous Berner Oberland mountain trio of the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau. However, the views back down towards Lauterbrunnen, Murren and Wengen still looked great!

Mannlichen View
Mannlichen ViewPrints Available
The beautiful view from halfway up the Mannlichen

Looking down to the Lauterbrunnen and Wengen below, it’s a marvel of technology that a train ride and an aerial cableway can take you from Lauterbrunnen’s elevation of 2,608 feet at the valley floor to over 7,500 ft at the cableway station on the Mannlichen. All this in about 20 or so minutes! I took my time shooting photos and enjoying the scenery on my way up to the Mannlichen summit.

Walking the Mannlichen
Walking the MannlichenPrints Available
View from the hiking trail up the Mannlichen

At the top, the views were phenominal, if a bit cloud covered. The clouds had been rolling in even thicker than they had been when I started at the cable car station a half hour before. You could make out the area where the Thunersee and Interlaken were. We would be continuing in that direction to Spiez later in the day. The views back towards Wengen still looked great, as you can see in the photo above. But the views to the east and towards the towering peaks were still blocked by clouds that were rolling in fast and furious. I knew we needed to get moving to have any time in Spiez, so I started heading back down to the summit while chatting with a Swiss mountain climber who was planning to do a climb up the Eiger in the coming weeks. Apparently he was training for an ascent up Mount Everest later that year! That was pretty awesome just to hear his climbing stories.

I arrived back at the Mannlichen cable car and rode back down to Wengen, saying goodbye to this amazing town before taking the train back down to Lauterbrunnen. We packed our stuff up, and got ready to visit the town of Spiez on our way back to Zurich for our plane home the next morning. I was sad to leave Lauterbrunnen, Wengen, Murren, Gimmelwald, Grindelwald and the entire Berner Oberland. I’ve dreamed of going back ever since! But I still had an afternoon to spend on the shores of the Thunersee at Spiez and it’s gorgeous castle! Check back in a day or two to read more about that adventure!

Posted under: Travel & Trip Reports

Grindelwald and the Berner Oberland: Alpine Magic Part 5

Posted on March 15, 2015 by Mickey

In the last part of Alpine Magic, I hiked through Murren, Gimmelwald and Lauterbrunnen and had a blast exploring these three towns and the countryside around them. Towering waterfalls, beautiful alpine meadows and great hiking abounded! The next stop in my plans was to visit some of the beautiful Berner Oberland by taking the train to the Jungfraujoch. I had also seen views of the Lauterbrunnental Valley from Wengen prior to my trip. These images of looking down on an amazing U-shaped valley with waterfalls everywhere is what sold me on my trip to Switzerland! And I would finally be visiting. I got up earlier than the rest of my group, and decided to venture up to Wengen for sunrise. I also had plans to hike from Kleine Scheidegg to the Mannlichen, as I had seen some beautiful photos from that area prior to my trip as well. I was also looking forward to hiking above Grindelwald the next day.

Visiting Wengen for the first time

I grabbed some cereal for a quick breakfast and jumped on one of the early trains to Wengen to see the sunrise from this beautiful town. The town had a few folks wandering the streets, but for the most part, I had a lot of Wengen to myself to explore in peace. I visited Wengen many times during my trip to Switzerland, and have come to consider it my favorite little mountain town in the world! It has a nice charm to it, and the scenery is absolutely gorgeous! There are no cars, and the only way into the town is to walk or ride the train up from Lauterbrunnen. There weren’t many clouds in the sky, so I didn’t expect an amazing sunrise, but thought it would be nice to get the alpine-glow as it hit the mountains. So I explored Wengen until I came to a path leading out of town into fields of wildflowers, where I set up and shot the image below.

Morning in the Alps
Morning in the AlpsPrints Available
A beautiful morning in the Alps near Wengen

Kleine Scheidegg

After sunrise, I wandered around town a little more before making my way back to the train station. I took the train up to Kleine Scheidegg with the thought of hiking to the Mannlichen. Unfortunately I got up to Kleine Scheidegg only to find that there was still too much snow on the trail to the Mannlichen. So I had to be content with walking around Kleine Scheidegg and enjoying the hazy views off towards the Grindelwald valley.

Kleine Scheidegg Panorama
Kleine Scheidegg PanoramaPrints Available
Hazy panorama looking back towards the Grindelwald valley from Kleine Scheidegg

While I was up there, I noticed that there was a train that continue on up into the mountains, so I read about the Top of Europe Jungfraujoch station that’s situated on the ridge between the Monch and Jungfrau, near the upper snows of the giant Aletsch glacier. So after spending some time wandering around Kleine Scheidegg, I jumped back on the train down to Lauterbrunnen to see if my brother and his girlfriend wanted to go. They were game, and because we were using the Swiss rail pass to travel, the Top of Europe train ride was reduced in cost for us.

Kleine Scheidegg Panorama
Kleine Scheidegg ViewPrints Available
The view back towards the west from Kleine Scheidegg

Junfraujoch: The Top of Europe and the Aletsch glacier

Early in the afternoon, we paid our tickets, jumped on the early afternoon train up, and began the ascent from 2,608 feet at Lauterbrunnen to 11,371 feet at the Jungfraujoch station! The views as we rode the train up to the tunnel built into the side of the Monch were amazing! We entered the tunnel into the mountain amidst beautiful alpine meadows and came out at the top amidst the largest glacier in Europe and snow everywhere! However, before getting to the top, the journey is punctuated by two stops to look out these windows built into the side of the Eiger, and again at the Eismeer, giving some amazing views! Once at the Jungfraujoch station, there are a plethora of interesting things to do. This place opened in 1912, and is almost like being in a mini-town built into a mountain! There’s a post office, a restaurant, an ice palace, an elevator to the top of the Sphinx for a dizzying view, and an opening to walk out onto the upper reaches of the snow of the mighty Aletschgletscher (Aletsch glacier) shown below!

The Mighty Aletschgletscher
The Mighty AletschgletscherPrints Available
The longest glacier in the Alps is the Aletschgletscher, pictured above

When we first arrived, we decided to walk out onto the Aletsch glacier. While we had been treated to some amazing late spring weather everywhere we went, the top of the Aletschgletscher was something different all-together. At 11,000+ miles above sea level, bitter cold wind pounded us the moment we walked out the door. When I set up my tripod and camera to shoot the above shot, I had to hold the tripod still to keep the entire thing from flying off the ridge and down to the glacier below. However, the views of the Aletsch glacier below are stunning! The Aletsch glacier is the longest glacier in the Alps at more than 13 and a half miles long! As cold as it was, we stayed out shooting photos and marveling at the amazing views for a good 20 minutes.

When we finally had our fill, we went back into the Jungfraujoch and decided to explore the Ice Palace. The entrance to the Ice Palace is a long ice corridor that leads to various scultures as you can see below.

Ice Palace Corridor
Ice Palace Corridor
The entrance corridor to the Jungfraujoch ice palace
Ice Palace Lit Sculpture
Ice Palace Lit Sculpture
A lit up sculpture at the Jungfraujoch ice palace
Ice Palace Sculptures
Ice Palace Sculptures
Sculptures at the Jungfraujoch ice palace

Once we had explored the ice palace for a while, we ascended via the double lift to the Sphinx observation decks. This was just as cool as being outside on the top of the glacier. When you step out onto the decks, you can look down below you through the metal mesh flooring to the rocks, ice and snow hundreds of feet below you. The views from here were outstanding! As the last train back down from the Jungfraujoch was only 20 minutes away, we unfortunately had little time up here. Had the trains been running later, I would have loved to shoot a sunset or night sky from high above the Aletsch glacier. Unfortunately, like many other attractions, late May had shortened hours for the off-season. I shot some photos like the one below and we headed back to down the train station.

Jungfraujoch View
Jungfraujoch ViewPrints Available
The view from the top of the Sphinx at the Jungfraujoch

That evening was spent wandering around Wengen prior to sunset, then watching the sunset from the balcony of the Valley Hostel in Lauterbrunnen while eating a nice dinner of cheese, bread and some amazing chocolate from the dairy! We went to bed early, with dreams of hiking above the famous town of Grindelwald the next morning!

Day 8: Friday, May 29th, 2009 – Hiking Above Grindelwald

We awoke early the next morning and dropped our luggage off at the storage lockers at the Lauterbrunnen train station before getting on the train to Grindelwald. We needed to do this, because we were switching from the Valley Hostel to Hotel Oberland Lauterbrunnen for our last night in Lauterbrunnen. Once we got the luggage dropped off, we hopped on the train from Lauterbrunnen to Grindelwald. Today’s plans were to hike up to the Bachalpsee from First after taking the cable car up from Grindelwald. Grindelwald is another beautiful Swiss mountain town. It’s history spans back for many centuries, with first mention back in the 1100’s. It’s history as a tourist destination began in the 19th century and it has become one of Switzerland’s crown jewels of mountain towns! Some of the most famous Alps surround the Grindelwald valley. The famous trio of the Monch, Eiger and Jungfrau are to the southwest, whereas the Finsteraarhorn, Wetterhorn, Schreckhorn and Gross Fiescherhorn also stand high above Grindelwald.

We walked to the First cable car station from Grindelwald, getting on the impressive cable car that took us high above Grindelwald to the First summit. At the top, we watched a paraglider getting ready to descend to the valley below. We marveled at the beautiful views of the massive Grindelwald valley. The panorama below should give you an idea of the vast expanse from one side of Grindelwald’s valley to the south where the north face of the Eiger dominates.

The Eiger and Grindelwald Valley
The Eiger and Grindelwald ValleyPrints Available
The northface of the Eiger towers over Grindelwald valley in this panorama

The hike to the Bachalpsee (or Bachsee) was beautiful. I’ve always had a thing for alpine lakes, as I frequently hike to many high mountain lakes in Colorado on my yearly trips out there. So I was excited to see one of Grindelwald’s famous hiking locations at the Bachalpsee. My photography goal with this hike was to get a good reflection of the jagged peaks in the lake. This hike didn’t disappoint, as the views across the valley were phenomenal, with famous peaks such as the Eiger, Wetterhorn and Schreckhorn standing tall all around us! These peaks across the valley contrasted with the beautiful alpine meadows we were walking through. In addition you could see a lot of glaciers hanging off the various peaks. After an hour or so, we arrived at the Bachalpsee. There’s technically two lakes here. A natural dam divides a smaller pond just below the Bachalpsee proper. Unfortunately the main lake was almost fully covered in snow and ice still, but the lower pond had quite a bit of open water. There was little wind that morning allowing me to shoot a good reflection on the lake surface.

Bachalpsee Reflection
Bachalpsee ReflectionPrints Available
The Schreckhorn and other famous Alps reflect in the Bachalpsee

We spent an hour or so wandering around the lake, and walking a ways above it to admire the views. Once we had our fill of the views (not that it’s really possible to get your fill of views like these) we decided to head back towards First. On the way back, the clouds picked up and gave me a chance to shoot the moody scene below.

Schreckhorn and Wetterhorn
Schreckhorn and WetterhornPrints Available
View of the Schreckhorn and Wetterhorn on the hike from Bachalpsee to First
First Gondola
First Gondola
The gondola back to Grindelwald from First

We finished our hike back to First, and jumped on the gondola (pictured above) back to Grindelwald. By the time we made it back to Grindelwald, it was almost lunch time and we were starving! We hadn’t eaten out in a few days, and really felt like sitting down to enjoy a meal, so we went in search of a restaurant. Many weren’t open yet, as we had gotten back into town a little before lunch hours (plus, it was the off-season so places weren’t open as early as they would have been in the summer months) After walking down the streets of Grindelwald a bit, we found a place called Sport Pub that was open. We split a delicious pizza while watching a random football (soccer) game on the TV.

Once we finished up our meal, we did a little shopping in Grindelwald, as most of the stores had opened at this point. It was a beautiful town I’d love to go back and visit again. Once we had bought a few shirts to take back home with us, we jumped on the train back to Lauterbrunnen, grabbing our stuff at the storage lockers, and heading to the Hotel Oberland Lauterbrunnen for our final night up in the Berner Oberland.

The next part of my adventure deals with the last 24 hours in the Berner Oberland, where I spend an amazing evening walking the streets of Wengen and hike the Mannlichen the next morning. Check back tomorrow for that post!

Posted under: Travel & Trip Reports

Lauterbrunnen, Murren & Gimmelwald: Alpine Magic Part 4

Posted on March 11, 2015 by Mickey

In the last post for Alpine Magic, we visited the Chateau de Chillon. We knew we needed to be to our next location, Lauterbrunnen, by late afternoon. The reason? The Champion’s League final between Manchested United and Barcelona was being played, and we needed to find a place to watch it! We really wanted to take the Golden Pass scenic train, but timing didn’t allow it, so we boarded the train back to Martigny, and eventually to Interlaken, where the train would take us up into the Berner Oberland and Lauterbrunnen! I still remember seeing the first of many famous waterfall’s in the Lauterbrunnental Valley on the train and being in awe. I will say up front, while the rest of my Switzerland and France trip was fantastic, this area was, hands down, the best. Lauterbrunnen, Wengen, Murren and Gimmelwald are a mountain-lovers paradise. All of it is amazing. From the culture and way of life to the scenery and the hiking, it’s hard to find a place anywhere in the world that compares! I’ve been dreaming of the day I can visit Lauterbrunnen, Murren, Gimmelwald and Wengen again! It’s the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen in my life!

When we got off the train, we grabbed an easy dinner of cheese, bread and fruit at the bakery and dairy shops. The bakery, dairy, butcher, COOP and train station were all just a few short steps to the place we were staying, at the Valley Hostel of Lauterbrunnen. I normally don’t stay in hostels while traveling. This is mainly because I’m lugging expensive camera equipment and honestly, I just like my privacy. I like to work on photos in peace in my downtime. Thankfully, as we were there in the off-season, there were a number of private rooms available for a really good price. It didn’t come with breakfast or anything like many hotels do, but I was more interested in getting breakfast at the local bakeries by this point anyways. When many people think of hostels, they think of a dormitory style room with a bunch of beds stuck together. While they did have shared rooms, the upper floor had private rooms, of which I had one with a small balcony overlooking Staubbach Falls. The view was amazing, and the price was perfect!

We inquired from the Valley Hostel owners where we could watch the Champions League as the rooms didn’t have a TV. They suggested going down to the Horner Pub, as they would have the game on. So we walked down the main street, and entered the pub. We took the only open table left in the place, and listened to the elderly Scottish and English gentlemen talk about how great the game would be. We were ready to watch Cristiano Ronaldo and Manchester United take on Leo Messi and Barcelona, live from Rome for the coveted Champion’s League final! The only problem? We didn’t see a TV in the place. When a waitress finally came around, we asked about the game, to be told that they were showing it in a room in the back of the pub. “Bloody ‘ell, lads, we better get back there before we miss the kickoff!” I’ve never seen a group of elderly guys move so fast in my life. The English, Scottish, and, well, most of Europe live for their football. I felt right at home! The only thing that could have made it better was if my beloved Arsenal had made it into the final. But to just watch a Champion’s League final with a lot of British and Scottish folks in a place as beautiful as Lauterbrunnen was an experience! We filtered in to a few of the last seats in the back of the big room right in time to hear that famous Champion’s League anthem.

In many Swiss restaurants, ordering a beer is cheaper than water or a coke. That would be great, if I drank beer. However, I don’t. So I ordered a $4 bottle of Coke, and sat back to enjoy the experience. When I tried to tip the waitress/bartender for my Coke, she proceeded to explain to me how American culture tips more than Swiss culture, and I was giving her too much money. The honesty was nice! Another interesting thing I remember about the game was that most non-British tourists in the place were die-hard United fans. But almost all the British and Scottish fans were rooting for Barcelona. I suspect it wasn’t so much that they wanted Barca to win, but rather, United to lose. Many of them probably were fans of their local teams in England and Scotland, and so by principle couldn’t support the red half of Manchester. In the end, Barcelona won rather convincingly by 2-0.

As we left, we followed the older Scottish and English gentlemen towards the hostel as they bantered back and forth about Carlos Tevez, Cristiano Ronaldo, the vision of Xavi and other players and moments of the game. I crashed pretty quickly that evening, excited for the hike through Murren and Gimmelwald that was planned for the morning!

Day 7: Thursday, May 28th, 2009 – Hiking Murren and Gimmelwald

We awoke the next morning ready to visit Murren and Gimmelwald! When I was first researching where I wanted to go in Europe, the entire Lauterbrunnental Valley kept coming up. A friend’s parents lent me some Switzerland travel guides and DVDs where I had first read about Gimmelwald. I researched the area, and knew I had to visit myself. So we grabbed breakfast at the local Lauterbrunnen bakery. Like Fuchs in Zermatt, Lauterbrunnen’s bakery was amazing! With breakfast in hand, we were ready to hike Murren and Gimmelwald.

There are three ways up to Murren and Gimmelwald, which sit perched atop the massive cliffs on the west side of the Lauterbrunnental valleys. One is to ride the bus from Lauterbrunnen to Stechelberg and then taking the cable car up from there to Murren. The second option is to take the funicular from Lauterbrunnen up the Grutschalp, and then board a scenic train that follows the top of the cliff to Murren. The third option is to hike one of the trails up from the valley floor, up and around the cliffs to Murren or Gimmelwald. We decided to take the second option, riding the funicular right down the street from the bakery, and then taking the beautiful train ride to Murren. We would then hike down from Murren to Gimmelwald, then down to Stechelberg and back to Lauterbrunnen. When we arrived in Murren, we saw a Swiss mountain town at it’s finest. Murren sits at almost 5,500 feet above sea level, whereas Gimmelwald is at almost 4,500 feet. We walked through Murren and it’s many hotels. It’s said that there’s 4 times as many hotel beds in Murren as their are permanent residents in the village. It’s a beautiful village, with an amazing view across the Lauterbrunnental valley and the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau trio of famous Alps in the distance.

Village of Murren
Village of MurrenPrints Available
Murren and it’s amazing view!

We walked through town, admiring the views at every turn. Eventually, we got to the edge of town, where various farms take over the scenery from the hotels of Murren. We eventually came to the outskirts of Gimmelwald, where it’s said the cows far outnumber the people!

GimmelwaldPrints Available
One of the resident cows of Gimmelwald

Gimmelwald has been made famous by Rick Steves and his Europe books and videos. It’s a beautiful town, with tourism and farming the main gigs for permanent residents. It didn’t take long to move from one side of the town to the other, as beautiful as it was. We had already dropped a good 1,000 feet since Murren, and would be hiking down around the cliffs to Stechelberg another almost 1,500 feet below. We began the hike, which continued with it’s beautiful views of the valley below, but eventually turned back to the west and became more forested. Views like the one below dominated the landscape.

Deep in the Alps
Deep in the AlpsPrints Available
The view higher into the Alps on the hike from Gimmelwald to Stechelberg

As we walked deeper into the forests and started turning back towards the east, lots of small hidden waterfalls came into view. The entire Lauterbrunnen valley is sometimes referred to as the “Land of 72 waterfalls”. Beautiful waterfalls pour off the cliffs everywhere, and this stretch of the hike between Gimmelwald and Stechelberg contained a good number of them! The waterfall below might be my favorite from that hike because of the way the sun was directly overhead, hitting the water just right!

Swiss Waterfalls
Swiss WaterfallsPrints Available
One of many waterfalls in the Lauterbrunnental Valley

When we got to Stechelberg, it had gotten quite warm outside, and we were getting really hungry. We decided the evening would be spent walking the valley floor between Lauterbrunnen and Stechelberg, so instead of walking back to Lauterbrunnen, we hopped on the bus that took us back. We stopped into the bakery, dairy store and COOP to pick up food for lunch and snacks for the next few days. Many of the little stores in Lauterbrunnen were fun to visit. I bought more chocolate than I should have, and enjoyed a LOT of cheese while I was there. At one point, I read that some people in Switzerland can tell you what region the cheese came from by it’s taste. We scarfed down a quick lunch then took a much needed powernap.

An amazing evening hike

I awoke after a short while and worked on some of the photos I had taken in the morning. By late afternoon, I decided ventured out into the Lauterbrunnen valley on my own. This easy hike through the valley is one of those memories I remember vividly. The weather was as perfect as it could be, and I started my walk down Lauterbrunnen’s main street towards the church.

Lauterbrunnen Church
Lauterbrunnen ChurchPrints Available
Lauterbrunnen’s beautiful church with Staubbach Falls in the background

Passing by the church, I stopped in the Lauterbrunnen cemetery and shot the photo below. Vivid flowers adorned the perfectly manicured grave-sites.

Life and Death
Life and DeathPrints Available
Lauterbrunnen’s cemetery with Staubbach Falls in the background

I continued walking down the road that went to Stechelberg. Towards the edge of town was Lauterbrunnen’s Camping Jungfrau which is highly rated for it’s facilities. A little further along, a stream that came from Staubbach Falls crossed under the road. Right next to the stream was a driveway leading to the house in the photo below. If there was ever a house that I could call my dream house, this is it. Having a beautiful cascading mountain stream run right by your house, and a famous, 1,000 foot waterfall in your backyard for scenery would be a dream come true!

Lauterbrunnen Stream
Lauterbrunnen StreamPrints Available
My dream house!

I continued on through the valley, and realized just how many flowers were starting their spring bloom. There was color everywhere, and the trees were so green! This was typical of all of Switzerland, but on this night, it stood out even more! Every direction I looked, I either saw colorful flowers, towering cliffs, massive waterfalls, or amazing views of the surrounding Swiss Alps.

At some point, halfway to Stechelberg, I decided to follow a small walking path between the various fields that eventually turned and followed the main river. The sunset was showing some good light in the distance. I tried grabbing some good photos of it, but nothing came out well. Or so I thought. The light had mostly gone in the distance towards the north, but as I was passing back by the church in Lauterbrunnen, I looked back to see the most vivid purple hued post-sunset glow I’ve ever seen.

Purple Lauterbrunnen
Purple LauterbrunnenPrints Available
A vivid purple-glowing sunset in Lauterbrunnen

Come back in a few days for the next few parts, where I explore Wengen, Grindelwald, hike the Mannlichen and take an amazing train ride to the Top of Europe station!

Posted under: Travel & Trip Reports

The Chateau de Chillon: Alpine Magic Part 3

Posted on March 9, 2015 by Mickey

Part 3 of my Alpine Magic travel adventure took me to the beautiful Swiss Riviera of the town of Montreux and Switzerland’s most famous castle, the Chateau de Chillon, which was built on the edge of Lac Leman, better known as Lake Geneva. If you haven’t read the first two parts of Alpine Magic, which focused on Zermatt and the Matterhorn and Chamonix-Mont Blanc in France, you can find them to the left.

Day 6: Wednesday, May 27th, 2009 – On to the Chateau de Chillon

We awoke to an overcast morning in Chamonix, France. I didn’t bother to shoot a sunrise, as the sky was covered with low-hanging clouds blocking the sun and mountains. We made our way down to the delicious breakfast at Hotel L’Arve that was again full of amazing bread, cheese, jams and fruit. With the weather being cloudy and a full day ahead of ourselves, we packed up to head off to the train station. The “Mont Blanc Express” train ride from Chamonix to Martigny had some spectacular scenery and views when we first arrived. I regretted not shooting photos two days before, as the foggy weather kept the views completely cloudy on the way back into Switzerland. While the views were gone, the sort of dreamy feel of taking this train ride up into the clouds and mountains across the border back into Switzerland was still beautiful nonetheless.

We enjoyed the train ride back to Martigny, then changed trains to head for Montreux. The train ride from Martigny to Montreux was also beautiful, full of views of the Alps and various vineyards, but town of Montreux itself was gorgeous! We knew we had a mile or two walk from the Montreux train station to our intended destination of Chateau de Chillon, but I had found information that some train stations had lockers you could rent to stuff your luggage in. We really did not want to lug our entire luggage with us to the castle, so we inquired about the lockers and lucked out that the Montreux station had lots of storage lockers available. After stuffing our luggage in our locker, we immediately set out to explore Montreux.


While Montreux’s history spans back to being a settlement on an important Roman road, it’s more recent history has been as a major tourist destination. Montreux was already becoming an international tourist destination back in the early 1800s, and is famous for the annual jazz festival. Montreux has attracted poets ever since Lord Byron first visited and wrote Prisoner of Chillon Castle in 1816. Lord Byron, Leo Tolstoy, Mary Shelley and Igor Stravinsky were all visitors of Montreux and it’s beauty. One famous aspect of Montreux is the statue of Freddie Mercury, vocalist for the band Queen, who called Montreux his home until his death in 1991. While Montreux is famous for this history of music, jazz and the many poets that visited, it’s probably even more famous as possibly the best section of the Swiss Riviera. The promenade along the shore of Lake Geneva is possible the most beautiful lakeside walk I’ve ever taken. Both palm trees and mountain pine trees can be found, along with colorful flowers. Hotels and restaurants line the promenade and continue up the hillside into the foothills of the Alps above. Color, especially the green of the trees and the green-blue colors of Lake Geneva (or Lac Leman in French – as we were in the French speaking part of Switzerland here) was as vivid as possible.

Everywhere we looked, people were just out enjoying themselves, walking or riding a bike along the promenade, sitting on various benches enjoying food from a local spot or just watching the ducks on Lake Geneva below. Watching people enjoy lunch on the benches made us hungry. We knew we needed to move fast, as we had a mile or two walk to our main destination, the Chateau de Chillon, so instead of hitting up a restaurant, we stopped at the local grocery store, Migros, and picked up some sandwiches. We walked while we ate, enjoying the amazing scenery, like the view below, looking towards the Chateau de Chillon in the distance.

Montreux and Lake Geneva
Montreux and Lake GenevaPrints Available
The view from one of the piers on the prominade from Montreux to Chillon

Walking along the Swiss Riviera towards the Chateau de Chillon castle, I really regretted not planning a night in Montruex. Just thinking of the photo opportunities I would have had of a sunrise, sunset or night scene over Lake Geneva and the Chateau de Chillon left me disappointed I hadn’t looked into it. If I ever get to return to Switzerland, it’s a must-do on my next trip. I also remember thinking it would have made one of the best locations to spend a honeymoon or anniversary someday. Montreux just exudes romance. Maybe it’s the history of famous poets who have called the area a second home. Being married now, it’s one of the top places I would love for my wife to see. Being able to go on an evening walk along the promenade would be amazing!

The Chateau de Chillon

Approaching the castle from the north, you get a great view of the Alps to the south. They make a stunning backdrop to the castle and are the subject of many photographs from people who visit. In fact, any angle of the castle is beautiful (one of mine is featured towards the bottom of this page). I had done some research and found that entrance to the castle is free with a Swiss Pass, which was great for us and another reason to recommend using the rail passes as a way to travel in Switzerland. What I hadn’t realized is that some of the boat rides from various towns on the lake are also free with the Swiss Pass. While we were a little disappointed we didn’t take advantage of that, it’s hard to be sad that we walked the beautiful prominade instead. Unfortunately the boat times back to Montreux were a little too late for us to take back when we left the castle.

The Chateau de Chillon has a history dating back more than 1000 years. While there is no definitive date for when the earliest parts of the castle were built, it began as a Roman outpost as early as 1005AD to control the road from Burgundy to the Great Saint Bernard Pass. By the mid 12th century, the Count’s of Savoy used it as a summer home and in the mid-1250’s, Chillon castle was expanded by Peter II, a Count of Savoy. As the castle was built on a rocky island, the lake actually forms a natural moat, with a modern bridge to it’s entrance. We entered into the castle, exploring the various courtyards, the largest of which is the “The Courtyard of Honor”. We entered into the castle, and decided to save the dungeons for last, as they were supposed to be pretty awesome. We climbed up to the top, where various sentry walks line the castle. These have some nice views out onto Lake Geneva. But on the shore-side, the walls were built far more defensively, to protect from attacks.

Chateau de Chillon Courtyard
Inside Chateau de Chillon
Looking down upon the courtyards of Chillon castle.
Chateau de Chillon Tower
Chateau de Chillon Tower
One of the towers and sentry walks in the upper reaches of the castle.

Walking through more of the castles rooms, we came to the Grand Ducal Hall, also known as the Aula Magna, with it’s checkered walls. Black marble columns support the 15th century wooden ceiling. The Aula Nova, which was once the banquet hall now contains a museum, including various weapons and armor like the ones on display below.

Chateau de Chillon Armory
Armory of Chateau de Chillon
Armor on display in Chateau de Chillon

We continued through the castle to the Grand Burgrave Hall, with it’s support arches that hold up a large wooden ceiling. Various furniture and paintings adorned the room. There was also a chapel dedicated to St George on the northeast side of the castle with a rib-vaulted ceiling and various frescoes along the wall.

Next, we made our way down towards the underground chambers that were once used as a prison. These are possibly the most famous parts of the castle, as Lord Byron’s poem The Prisoner of Chillon was written about the Chateau de Chillon’s most famous prisoner, Francois de Bonivard. Bonivard was a Genevois monk who was imprisoned from 1532 to 1536 here. The giant vaulted ceiling encompasses a lot of the grandier of the castle, as seen below:

Chateau de Chillon Dungeon
Chateau de Chillon DungeonPrints Available
The famous dungeons of Chateau de Chillon
Chateau de Chillon Cellar
Chateau de Chillon CellarPrints Available
The wine cellar of Chateau de Chillon

I can see why the Chateau de Chillon is Switzerland’s most famous castle. It’s beautiful, inside and out. I really wanted at least one decent shot of the castle from the outside as well and so before getting on the bus to the Montreux train station, I tried one more shot of the castle, which you can see below. It was a real struggle to get a good photograph, due to harsh lighting and lack of any filters to smooth out the water. (I had unfortunately forgotten them in the travel bag back in the locker) But this shot turned out alright, and has an almost storybook feel to it which lends to the castle’s fairy-tale beauty.

Storybook Chillon
Storybook ChillonPrints Available
Switzerland’s famous Chateau de Chillon castle

We jumped on the bus back to the heart of Montreux, grabbed our stuff out of the storage lockers and boarded the train for our next destination: Lauterbrunnen and the Berner Oberland. More on that adventure in a few days when I post part 4.

Posted under: Travel & Trip Reports

Chamonix-Mont Blanc, France: Alpine Magic Part 2

Posted on March 4, 2015 by Mickey

Welcome back to part two of Alpine Magic where I continue my exploration of the Swiss and French Alps. If you haven’t read part 1, it’s worth a read, as I trekked around Zermatt and the Matterhorn before heading for Chamonix!

However, this part of Alpine Magic focuses on my adventures in Chamonix at the base of Mont Blanc in the French Alps.

Day 4: Monday, May 25th, 2009 – Off to France!

I awoke early in the morning, and like the day before, went out to shoot a cloud-less sunrise. I was still determined to try and get a decent Matterhorn sunrise, but unfortunately the weather never cooperated in giving me a great sunrise or sunset. Even so, it was still a blast trying and just seeing the Matterhorn left me in awe. Especially since it’s pyramid-like peak was covered in a golden alpine glow.

After the sunrise, we packed up and headed for the train station. Our train ride would take us from Zermatt back to Visp, and then to Martigny, across the border and finally to Chamonix-Mont Blanc, France! We grabbed one last amazing breakfast at Fuchs bakery on the way to the train station, and set off to visit France for the first time. The rail trips from Zermatt to Visp and then on to Martigny were beautiful. Martigny is an old Roman town, and I remember seeing at least one old castle up on a hill top that was likely Château de Tourbillon near Sion. The countryside was beautiful with the Rhone river running parallel to the train, vineyards on the hillsides and above them the Alps towering over the entire valley of Valais.

As beautiful as this train ride was, it didn’t even compare to the train ride that crossed the border from Martigny, Switzerland to Chamonix, France. This train ride is called the Mont Blanc Express and was covered by our Swiss rail pass even though Chamonix is in France. The scenery along the way is stunning. The train immediately climbs out of Martigny, passing through the Trient valley, with amazing views, dizzying heights, crashing waterfalls in beautiful forests and charming little villages. One of my biggest regrets to this trip was not having my camera out. I had expected to just enjoy the train ride to Chamonix, then take some shots when we came back this way towards the Berner Oberland a few days later, but that day was cloudy and rainy, so I missed the chance to keep a visual record, but I recall the train on the side of steep cliffs, looking off across the valleys and wondering how in the world people who lived in small houses on the mountainside ever got to their house with the incline on the side of some of these mountains. It looked like a dream mountain environment to explore.

By the time we arrived in France, the train was rolling through a few beautiful mountain towns like Vallorcine, where you changed trains to finish the ride to Chamonix. The Chamonix valley itself was gorgeous. Glacier’s hung from Mont Blanc massif, and the peaks towered over the valley in a way I’ve never seen before. Mont Blanc, which towers above the Chamonix valley on the south is the tallest mountain in Europe excluding Russia. Once we arrived in Chamonix, we had a few blocks to walk to our hotel, which gave us a good sense of the beautiful town. Hotel d’Larve, where we stayed in Chamonix, was right next to the Arve river, with great views of the Mont Blanc massif and Bossons glacier. We explored the hotel a little, and found they had a small rock climbing wall in their workout area. There was also a beautiful patio area next to the river with great views of Aiguille du Midi.

Once we had explored our hotel, we decided to walk through town and find some lunch. We happened upon an outdoor cafe, called Cafe Valentino. It took me a lot of Googling, looking at Google Maps and then pictures of restaurants to figure out what the name of this cafe was, and truthfully, I can’t even remember what I ate there for lunch. From the reviews online, it’s not surprising I can’t remember what I ate. The only thing I really remember about it was a waiter at the restaurant next door having the biggest handlebar mustache I’ve ever seen. We spent a the rest of the afternoon wandering the shops a little bit and just walking up and down some of the streets.

Mont Blanc Massif Panorama
Mont Blanc Massif PanoramaPrints Available
Panorama of the Mont Blanc Massif on the Promenade des Bourses in Chamonix, France

The best memory I have of Chamonix was when I ventured out on my own to explore the valley. In the evening, I took a walk towards the northeast in the Chamonix valley. It was in this evening that I fell in love with Chamonix. I walked along the Arve River, crossing bridges, through forests, shooting some photos and just generally enjoying an amazing evening in the quiet of this place. On a few occasions I talked to a local or two who was also out for a stroll. I was still in awe of how deep this valley was compared to the massive Mont Blanc. Mont Blanc is around 15000 feet, whereas the valley floor is around 3500 feet. That’s a HUGE different in elevation for someone living in the Great Plains of Kansas. Even Colorado, where I often visit, struggles to compare to this. Most ski resort and mountain towns are between 7500-9500 feet, and Colorado’s tallest mountains are called the 14ers, at 14000+ feet. And even those 14ers rarely nestle themselves right next to a town. So the grand scale of everything in Chamonix was impressive to say the least. Add in a beautiful evening and the sound of the glacier water roaring along the Arve River, and it made for a fantastic walk in the valley. Even as someone who is obsessed with taking photos of my travels, it was far more about the experience than the photos on this evening.

Day 5: Tuesday, May 26th, 2009 – Chamonix and the Mer de Glace

I awoke early (though a little later than I had planned), with hopes of getting a nice sunrise shot of Mont Blanc somewhere in the valley. I didn’t have a lot of time to find a good composition as the light was beginning to present some vivid colors in the clouds swirling above Mont Blanc. I set up shop in a open area near the Alpine Museum of Chamonix to shoot the beautiful sunrise unfolding above Bossons Glacier and Mont Blanc.

Colorful Chamonix
Colorful ChamonixPrints Available
A vivid sunrise displays it’s colors above Chamonix

Breakfast at Hotel d’Larve was fantastic. There were many different types of breads and jams, local cheese, fruits and more. While we enjoyed this great food, we discussed what we wanted to do for the day. As we only had one full day in Chamonix, we had to decide how we were going to spend it. Many options were impossible. The cable cars and such on the north side of Chamonix to Brévent and Flégère were either on limited schedules or were still in off-season and not running. The original plan was to take the Aiguille du Midi cable car and then the cable car from there across the Mont Blanc massif to the Italian side at Courmayeur. The Aiguille du Midi cable car is the world’s highest vertical ascent cable car, going from just under 4000 feet in Chamonix, to the towering spires at over 12600 feet! At one point, during the trip planning, I had planned for to stay a night or two in Courmayeur, as they have a highly recommended hotel with an amazing Italian breakfast called Hotel Bouton d’Or. However, after contacting them, they informed me they were closed on the dates we were there for the off-season. This was a letdown, because the hotel and the entire area on the Italian side of Mont Blanc looked awesome.

Unfortunately, a number of things completely ended our hope to even make it to the Italian side of Mont Blanc. While the Aiguille du Midi cable car was running, the cable car running from there, across the border to Italy was in the off-season still. In addition, the weather looked a little sketchy with rain in the forecast, so we opted for taking the Montenvers train up to see the Mer de Glace instead of going up to Aiguille du Midi.

This option proved to be pretty amazing. We walked to the station that would take us from Chamonix up to the Montenvers rail station. The train that took us up here originally began operating in 1908 and the Grand Hotel in Montenvers has been open since 1880. But the real attraction to taking this train up here is the Mer de Glace which translates to “Sea of Ice.” The Mer de Glace is France’s longest glacier at almost 4.5 miles long and 650 feet deep of pure ice. We got off the train after a large group of French mountaineers with full gear, who immediately set off down the path and ladders that lead to the glacier to begin crossing it. In a few of the large stitched images I took of the glacier, this group of 20 or so mountaineers look like tiny ants on a giant sea of ice. We followed them down towards the glacier, stopping at the point where railings became sketchy without proper gear, admiring the beauty of Mer de Glace. As we went back to the train station, we found out about the Ice Cave. A cable car (or hike) with another walk down some bolted in metal stairs could take you down to the base of the glacier where you can enter the ice grotto. The Mer de Glace Ice Grotto was filled with many ice sculptures and beautiful caves. We explored these caves, reading about the history of the glacier and admiring the ice sculptures. As we left the ice grotto we decided to hike back up to the Montenvers train station. There were a lot of good look-out points to view the glacier from as we hiked back up. One of which can be seen below.

Mer de Glace
Mer de GlacePrints Available
France’s largest glacier, the mighty Mer de Glace, sprawls out with storm clouds building in the mountains above.

By the time we got back to Chamonix on the train, we were starving. Fortunately, Chamonix didn’t shut down shop like Zermatt did in the afternoon, so after dropping off our backpacks at the hotel we went in search of food. After walking up and down the streets of Chamonix, we decided to try a place called Poco Loco. We had eaten tons of cheese and bread most of the trip, but had been craving some protein and figured a good burger and fries would fit the bill. I got the special Poco Loco burger with fries (frites) while the others tried different kinds of burgers. Feeling satisfied from a good meal, we decided to get a nap in at the hotel for a bit.

Once we awoke in late afternoon, the stormy looking clouds that had been up at the glacier earlier in the day had made their way into the valley. We still wanted to do a little walking of the streets, knowing we would be leaving fairly early in the morning for our next destination and wouldn’t have time to explore then. So we walked the streets to check out the shops. I always like to see what local landscape photographers in mountain towns like Chamonix have to offer. I found a photo gallery of Chamonix photographer Mario Colonel that was unfortunately closed for the evening. I admired the images in the window as the rain began to fall. Within a few minutes, the drizzle turned to sheer downpour and we ducked into, of all places, a French McDonalds.

Once the rain died back off to a drizzle, we made our way back to the hotel. As this was my last night in France I wanted to make the most of it so I decided to venture out in the drizzle to explore the nearby area. While there was no chance of a sunset, the drizzle and clouds over the valley still created a nice effect moody scene. I wandered around the town square near the Tourism Office and eventually just past the church, where I eventually shot the image below.

Chuch of Chamonix
Mer de GlacePrints Available
The Bossons glacier and Mont-Blanc are partially covered in clouds as they watch over the Catholic Church of St. Michel on a rainy evening.

Tour du Mont Blanc

Before finishing this part of the Alpine Magic travel series, I wanted to bring up a part of the trip that I researched heavily, but never actually did. When originally looking up where to visit in Europe, one spectacular idea called the Tour of Mont Blanc came up on a number of occasions. The Tour du Mont Blanc is an extremely amazing multi-day trek around the entire Mont Blanc massif, spanning France, Italy and Switzerland! It’s over 100 miles in length, typically starting in Chamonix, France, heading south, then cutting east into Italy, and eventually turning more northward from Courmayeur and into Switzerland before cutting back to the west and south to finish in Chamonix. The tour boasts more than 6 miles of ascent and descent in Val Veni, Val Ferret, Vallee des Glaciers, the Trient valley and more amazing places. There is a plethora of accommodations on the trek, ranging from simple dormitory based refuges to luxurious hotels. When I was considering this trek as part of my trip, I realized late May was quite a bit early for someone to tackle the Tour du Mont Blanc, as snow still covers many places of the trail, and most of the refuges and huts in the mountains, and even hotels in Courmayeur and other locations, were closed for the off season. While it didn’t work out on this trip, some day I still want to give this trek a go. The opportunities for great photography and just an amazing experience still keep me researching and thinking about this trek at least once a year.

Join me in a few days when part three of Alpine Magic continues back into Switzerland with a day spent walking the promenade of Montreux and exploring Switzerland’s famous Chateau de Chillon!

Posted under: Travel & Trip Reports