By Greg B. There is something supremely majestic about seeing the Alps. Sure, Italy, France, Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Lichtenstein all have their portions of the Alps (well, Lichtenstein is nothing but Alps…), but Switzerland is arguably the most well known Alpine nation. People have been living in this gorgeous landscape for over 150,000 years, despite hard, yet beautiful winters. Farming and cattle are mainstays of the rugged landscape, and as you traverse the area, the faint and gentle ring of cowbells will be heard, carried on the gentle Alpine breeze.
You can tell I enjoyed my time here.
The views are striking. Even from the plateau in the Lake Lucerne region, one cannot escape the rugged and awe inspiring beauty of the Alps. My buddy and I were only in Switzerland a short time, but, we definitely planned on having some fun. For some reason, during a beer consuming expedition to Max’s Taphouse, we decided we should look into hang gliding while in Europe. And what better place to do it, that in the Swiss Alps! Well, it turns out there is a man, Bernie, who runs a hang gliding company in the gorgeous town of Interlaken. We’ll cover that in a bit, but it was the main source of entertain and reason for our foray into Switzerland.
The train from Frankfurt was pleasant enough. I recall riding through rolling hills in the German countryside, and in particular, I recall one especially vast expanse of farmland in a valley, flat, green, and empty as far as I could see. And I recall a runner, jogging out there in the mid afternoon sun, completely detached from the hustle and bustle of modern life, running out into the peaceful and tranquil (though I imagine the train made some noise to disrupt this) farmland. It was an image that stuck with me, even today when I’m out on long runs in the city.
As the train began our entry into Switzerland, I was awestruck. vast peaks and white limestone studded the landscape. Dramatic cliffs and sharp angles became common. Cold, blue water and fast moving streams were seen from the train windows. Oddly, we barely ascended, with Interlaken being only about 1800 feet above sea level. What struck me at this point was really how quick and steep the mountains in this region are. They really do rise up, as if straight from the earth, leaving relatively flat regions in between, set to be used for pasture. Our train chugged along, around lake Thun with views of the late afternoon sun, shadows of steep mountains and vibrant blue water before us. Once the train pulled into the station, we disembarked and navigated our way to the hotel we’d be staying in. The Rossli, a nice ski-type chalet that has some Swiss charm and some slightly more modern conveniences.
The hotel was a nice one, it had a restaurant/bar downstairs, some computers to use for the internet upstairs, and decent bedrooms, if a little small. It was a good place to crash for two nights, at least, that was the plan at this point. We ended up jostling our plans a bit, but more on that later. That evening, we set out to find some food and, walking up what I think was Jungfraustrasse. The after the sun set, the air took a pleasant crisp chill, and my buddy and I found ourselves seated outside, warmed by propane warmers, eating some tasty Italian style food (maybe at Pizzeria Piz-Paz?). I ordered a shrimp and pasta type dish, which I thought was well flavored, slightly spicy and pleasant. Jer ordered a pizza, but neither of us expected awhole pizza to arrive! Needless to say, we had quite a feast this night. Now, I thought at the time that perhaps it was the altitude, but I know now that we really had not ascended much, so this is likely not the case. But the Schneider weisse beer that I ordered in Interlaken was in the top 3 beers I’ve ever consumed in my life. In fact, most of the times I buy Schneider weisse here in the US, I end up disappointed. That beer, in Europe, so close to the brewery, was as close to being a perfect beer as possible. I can still smell the banana/clovey yeast, taste the subtle sweetness, slight bitterness and crispness of the carbonation. Damn that was a good beer! It’s nearly worth the trip to Europe just to sample this beer over there.
After the dinner, we headed back to our hotel and chatted with the owner and his son about good places to go out and have a beer in town. While we hung out and digested some food before hitting the town, a few great things happened. First, we discovered that they had chess sets downstairs, so we of course played some chess. Second, the owner’s son provided us with two tasty beverages, the first being a Rugen Brau, which I learned was the local beer from the Interlaken area. It’s tasty, more hoppy bite than most other pale Euro beers, and it went down pretty smooth. Along side this, we were provided with another local spirit, which unfortunately, I don’t recall what it was called, and my notebook has since been destroyed (washing a small notebook will do that), that was nice, it was clearly a type of schnapps and helped aid in our digestion. Overall, it was another good mark for the hotel!
Afterwards, we walked to a pub that was sort of outside of the town. I remember it getting pretty chilly out (and I wished I had another, stronger alcohol beer before we started walking!). We headed towards the Three Tells Irish Pub. One good thing about Irish pubs, regardless of whether you’re in Ireland, the middle of the mountains in Switzerland, or in backwoods Missouri, they’re all the same. Once there, we ordered a round of Guinness, sat back, and philosophized a bit. Eventually, we were overcome with sleepiness and wandered our way back to our hotel to crash.
The next morning we awoke with a vigor: today, we were going hang gliding. Shortly after our arranged meeting time, a blue van pulled up and we hopped in, meeting Bernie and his wife who filled us in on all the important documents and whatnot. After a short drive to a nice landing field, we helped him load up the necessary equipment into the fan, and he informed us that one of the two of us would be staying down at the landing strip while the first went gliding, and we’d take turns. Fair enough. He also informed us that whoever was down here could feel free to take from the cooler of beer they had in the equipment cabin. Excellent! After a short talk, it was decided that I’d go hang gliding first. And with that, we loaded into the van and headed up the mountain.
Once at the top, we had a gorgeous view, though there wasn’t much time to take it in. Bernie was setting up the glider, and needed some assistance. Setting aside any trepidation I might have about not knowing what I was doing and how this might impact our chances of survival, I followed his directions and within minutes, we had a glider up and ready to go. We then ran a practice takeoff, where I held onto Bernie’s support vest and we ran together, down a path for just a few yards. It was very important, he said, to keep running until airborne, because if I stop, and he keeps going, the weight of the glider on our backs would push us down the mountain side, rather than into the air. Fair point. So with one practice run he was satisfied, and we suited up, loaded the glider, ran a few yards and
We were flying.
It’s a feeling like no other when you suddenly realize that you’re moving your feet, and they aren’t, in any way, assisting you in moving forward. Rapidly several realizations hit you. First, being that if there was to be an issue, you’d be dead. But second, despite having no knowledge of the mechanics of a glider, you realize that you’re not dead, there seems to be no problems, and the view is astounding. The rush of air on your face and in your years is forceful and loud, but not unpleasant. It creates a short of ‘white noise’ for you, to block out sound and visually focus on just how stunning everything looks from several thousand feet directly above it. The trees were smaller, the lake spread out like a blue plain, sparkling in the morning sun. It was a little more chilly than I thought, but you quickly get used to it. And as you’re taking in the view and just starting to get comfortable in the air, one of two things will occur
- you will rapidly descend, at a rate that is terrifying
- you will rapidly ascend, at a rate which is confusing and terrifying
I gave exactly zero seconds of thought into how people can stay aloft for so long in hang gliders, but in retrospect, it makes a lot of sense. One needs to find updrafts and to circle within them to gain altitude. This is how birds do it, and it’s how a glider does too. I, however, hadn’t considered this fact. And as we were gliding we ran straight into a large updraft, which threw us hundreds of feet higher in a matter of seconds. It’s really an incredible feeling, the rapid and sudden up rushing of air. After a few of them you get used to it, but the first one is hard to handle, let me assure you!
It was about this time, several thousand feet above sea level, maybe a good 1200ft above the mountain top where we started (who knows, maybe more) that Bernie caught sight of para gliders, which as I now learned, were the hang glider’s natural and sworn enemy. Hang gliders are like the raptors of the sky, flying with speed, precision, and engaging in daredevil activities. Para gliders are the sky bovine, circling around, gently drifting in the wind, chewing their cud. Bernie asked me if I felt it was ok to ‘dive bomb them’, which I thought, ok, that sounds like fun. And with that, he tipped the glider up, we ascended, stalled, tipped forward and began a very rapid descent towards the gliders who were setting up on the takeoff spot. I don’t exactly recall what we yelled at them, but a friendly exchange of words from us and fingers from them was enjoyed by all. Of course, we were now moving at an incredible rate, rather close to the treeline, so we found another thermal and ascended again.
At this point, we soared over the mountain top and over lake Thun (I think), and after enjoying a few moments of grandeur, we began to slowly descend. As we got closer to the ground, Bernie asked me if I was ready for some tricks, which, at this point I absolutely was. Stalling and diving, gaining speed, we zoomed through the air, pulling tight corners, banking sharply on our sides, and flying with such velocity, all one can do is smile. We came in for a landing afterwards (which I also hadn’t considered how this occurred until it was happening) requires you to slide on your belly on the grass (don’t worry, you’re wearing a flat, protective plastic front thing and the grass is maintained without rocks and glass and stuff). What a trip. The adrenaline was coursing through my veins for a while after that. And while my buddy headed up and flew through the air, and I enjoyed the view and a nice cold beer, I remember thinking to myself that this was living. It’s an outstanding adventure, and if you’re in the area you’d be doing yourself a disservice by not trying to hang glide with Bernie! So while Jer went up and fly through the sky, I sat back, enjoyed the mountain views and pleasant weather while sipping a Gralsburg Export. It’s not a great beer… it’s like the Mexican lager of European beers. But, it was still a post flying beer, and that’s something!
That afternoon, we headed back into the main street of Interlaken, and grabbed a quick lunch. Neither of us were especially hungry (breakfast at the hotel was nice, a good mixture of cured meats, cheeses, breads, pastries, fruits and juice with coffee) and our morning beers had left us pretty full. But we dropped by a place looking for some fondue… I mean, we were in Switzerland after all! So we grabbed lunch outside on the street, sitting at a picnic table. Service was predictably slow (it’s Europe), the beer was pretty terrible (Feldchlosschen pilsner is awful, but I now know it’s owned/brewed by Carlsburg, which explains why it was so miserable) but one thing I didn’t count on was that the food was so bad. I opted for a meat fondue, quick was pretty expensive for the portion size (imagine getting two pieces of chicken and beef, each the size of a bay scallop), with a hot bowl of flavorless broth to cook them in. I ate it, but I wasn’t happy about it. During lunch, it was decided that we should get moving, on towards our next destination which was in Austria. But after looking at the train schedules and maps, we quickly realized that we’d be spending the entire next day on trains and in train station. At this point, several weeks into the trip, we were a little trained-out. So we decided that we’d upgrade our rail tickets for the night, to try to get a sleeper train. If we left Switzerland that evening, we would arrive in Vienna early the next morning. And from there, it’s a short train ride to Munich, and from there, a short train ride to Salzburg, and from there, a short train ride to our next destination, Berchtesgaden.
The sleeper train was a good idea. We managed to secure a 4 person room which, up until the very last moment was just the two of us. Fortunately, we were joined by some young kids who were on their way to an electronica concert in Poland for the night, so they brought wine, we had beer (remember those beers I bought in Holland? We just finished them up!). So after a couple hours of hanging out and revelry, we all tucked in for the night. Later, I would learn that everyone wanted to kill me as I snored that night, but fortunately, none of them actually did. I was pretty excited, Switzerland had been a blast, and now we were going to check out Austria, if only for a very limited amount of time.