WHAT IS GIMMELWALD, SWITZERLAND?
Gimmelwald, Switzerland is a small mountainside village in the Bernese Oberland overlooking the Lauterbrunnen Valley. Since this doesn’t make sense to me either, here are some maps:
The village itself is cliff-side at an elevation of about 4,500 feet. There are approximately 130 residents, one school, zero cars, and, my guess would be, a million cows? It’s a town for people who love (cows: me!) skiing, hiking, paragliding, mountain biking, and wingsuit flying. So in other words, people with death wishes. Lucky for me it’s also a place well equipped for more benign activities such as stargazing, feeding flowers to goats*, and looking at pretty things. Seriously, I’ve never seen anything more disgustingly gorgeous in my life. It’s the kind of scenery that makes you ask yourself the really important questions like, “Why are we all here?” or “What is the meaning of life?” and “Turn down for what?” There’s a saying about Gimmelwald that I’ve always loved because it reaffirms that it’s not just me, but that everyone sees this place as I do: “If heaven isn’t what it’s cracked up to be, send me back to Gimmelwald.”
* Actually, this is not the safest activity.
HOW THE LOVE AFFAIR BEGAN
While living in Italy in 2012, the prospect of a long weekend presented itself. Someone that knew someone I knew had mentioned Gimmelwald was the bee’s knees and so it was settled. Also, some swanky bloke named Rick Steves* mentioned it quite lovingly in an article titled, “Gimmelwald: The Swiss Alps in Your Lap”. Well that sounds promising! Plus the photos I saw were taken from the communal bathroom of a hostel (a loo with a view?), which could only mean this place was a must-see, or I just have questionable taste in websites. The Ford Kuga was rented and off we went!
* I had no idea who he was at the time even though I was LIVING IN EUROPE. Needless to say we are very close now. Ok he might not know that.
It was the most fascinating eight-hour drive from my tiny town in Tuscany to Gimmelwald, Switzerland. I can’t even tell you how many sheep I saw, and we all know how much I love roadside livestock. There were mountains (with actual snow on them, and being from flat-as-a-buttermilk-pancake west Tennessee this was HUGE), a train you drive your car onto to get through the mountains (not gonna lie, that was a scary 20 minutes, but I did learn the phrase “gute fahrt!”), and lastly, a gondola ride up the mountain to the village of Gimmelwald. These were all new things!
I didn’t have a plan or so much as a cupboard under the stairs to sleep in but luckily the Mountain Hostel (where previously mentioned bathroom photo was taken) is right outside the gondola station and had a bed available for us among 15 other sleepers snorers. Much of the first night was spent on their cliff-side patio enjoying locally brewed Rugenbräu, listening to the waterfalls across the valley, and watching the sky turn pink. It was all very Planet Earth only without the Sigourney Weaver voiceover. I’m inviting her along next time.
The second day there we climbed Bryndli, my first mountain! No big deal, I work out. WRONG. Oh, so wrong. It was a very big deal. I haven’t struggled that hard towards a goal since the time I tried to eat my first chicken foot in Taipei. I mean, come on now, it has toenails. (Since that night in 2009 I have had many a chicken foot and actually do like them.)
I took an altitude-induced break every twenty feet as my heart felt like a dead tomato splotched with moldy purple spots (ten points to Gryffindor if you recognized that) and then there was the mountaintop panic attack once I almost reached the top. The hillllls are aliiiiivve… with the sound of my petrified sobs and cries of, “I’M GOING TO DIE ON THIS MOUNTAIN!” My apologies go out to everyone* out there that day who was anticipating alpine breeze, mind at ease. This place wasn’t kidding around.
OK, fine, I’ll admit (now) that I may have overreacted. But in my defense, a 7,000-foot peak is just plain craziness for a girl raised at sea level. Also noteworthy: Bryndli is #4,825 on the list of highest mountains in Switzerland so draw whatever conclusions you like.
I left Gimmelwald the next day with a sparkly new rock on my hand** and a heart that had grown three sizes. What an amazing place. A place I knew for sure I would see again.
*Including my very patient boyfriend whose mountaintop marriage proposal attempt was inadvertently thwarted. **Attempt #2 was perfect.
THE SECOND TRIP
My second trip to Gimmelwald was just under a month ago. I’d been dreaming about returning since the minute I left over two years ago. While planning a trip to Oktoberfest in Munich I jumped at the chance to add Gimmelwald to the itinerary. With more time to plan I reserved a room at Esther’s Guesthouse, the local bed and breakfast. One of the biggest thrills for me was arriving at the Lauterbrunnen valley late at night and therefore in total darkness. I knew what surrounded us and what we would find at the first gondola stop but my friends wouldn’t find out until they woke in the morning.
The first glimpse of the surrounding snowcapped peaks is unforgettable. Come morning, we watched some clouds roll up from the valley, had a stupid delicious breakfast and headed out for the day’s hike. I wore my funkiest flying trapeze tights, a long sleeved leopard print shirt, a St. Louis Cardinals baseball cap, and some kickass Hello Kitty Christmas socks. So yeah, I’m pretty chic.
Moving to New England since my last trip has granted me the opportunity to hike many more mountain trails in preparation for my return to Switzerland. I have also since embraced my inner circus freak (you knew it was there) and began learning flying trapeze where I have spent the last seven months willingly jumping from platforms at great heights, swinging upside down, flipping in the air, and blindly throwing myself at other people in hopes that they will catch me. That may have helped.
I climbed the same mountain I attempted last time and made it to the summit with no problem! No crying, no anxiety, and no making my (now) husband carry both his backpack and mine (on his front) because I was afraid I was too top heavy (there’s a first time for everything). Six hours later we were back down in the neighboring town of Mürren enjoying “traditional Swiss cheese on toast with fried egg” and evidently the teeny tiny versions of vegetables.
After dinner in Mürren we walked the 45 minutes down the mountain back to Gimmelwald and rested up in our room at Esther’s. The night concluded later at the Mountain Hostel (one of only two places you can get food) with traditional cheese fondue followed by chocolate fondue! Cheese and chocolate are two things that Switzerland indisputably does better than anyone else. Thank you cows! They also rank pretty high in the ‘eating food with sticks’ category but the entire continent of Asia leads that one.
Day two began with a hike back up to the town of Mürren to rent equipment and begin the via ferrata, a special European way of hiking that makes all of your friends question your sanity and their henceforward relationship with you. You will learn more about the via ferrata in part two of this series titled SHAKY KNEES, NEPALESE. But I’ll give you this, it was the most terrifying, stinky-sweat-inducing, exhilarating thing I’ve ever done in my life. And I have been in not one, but two spelling bees. Would I do it again? In a heartbeat.* Would my friends do it again? “Not if you paid me a million dollars! And I’m still going to murder you in your sleep!” was the official line. That took up a good four white-knuckled hours of our day and when the trail ended at the Mountain Hostel it was pizzas all around! Huzzah! We lived! What a glorious time to be alive!
* In a New York minute. In the blink of an eye. At the drop of a hat. All other clichés that signify a non-hesitant yes.
Pizzas led to napping. Napping led to Rugenbräu. Rugenbräu led to the consumption of what was left of the duty-free booze and playing card games that I bitched about ceaselessly even though I was winning the whole time. My friends are lucky to have me.
It’s always a sad thing to leave this place. Looking at it with your own eyes still won’t convince you that this inconceivably badass place is real. The air is so clean and the ever-flowing street water is so delicious and pure. The flowers are so fragrant and, holy shit, that milk is fresh! Newly laid eggs and handmade jams for breakfast. Pretending to be the cliffhanger from The Price is Right. Tightrope walking over waterfalls and arguing about which constellations are which. Edelweiss and Alpine streams. These are a few of my favorite things!
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