Thursday, July 1, 2010

And Then I Went To Munich

Coming down the mountain from Gimmelwald was like waking up from a nap... hard to do, but boy did I feel refreshed.

To catch one last breath of natural beauty, a few of us stopped at Tremmelbach Falls on the way out. This series of waterfalls cuts through a mountain in a way that is impossible to photograph but uncannily similar to the water slide scene from Goonies.

Five hours later and I was in Munich. Over three days, I enjoyed myself but didn't fall in love. I was lucky to have the company of three fantastic roommates for sightseeing and eating. Here they are, with pretzels.

Here are a few observations about Munich:

1. It feels like Disneyland. Specifically, Fantasyland. This is probably because Fantasyland is fashioned to look like Bavarian, with the famous Disney castle modeled after one of Mad King Ludwig's countryside castles. (His castle, however, is not plastic.)

But then again, most of Munich is as artificial in its construction as Disney. Not much survived the WWII bombings, so the town was rebuilt at great expense to look exactly as it used to, but the structures themselves are mostly just a few years older than the ones at Disneyland in Anaheim.

2. I found it hard to get off the beaten path in Munich. It felt overrun with tourists, whose activities divided neatly into dull-but-historic sightseeing and beer-and-brat binging. These two activities coincide nicely at Hofbrau House, where Hitler famously roused the rabble and started the Nazi movement.

Today, the swastikas are neatly painted over with Bavarian flags... and that is a pretty good metaphor for how Nazi history is remembered throughout Munich.

3. Except for one place: Dachau concentration camp. That was my first visit to a concentration camp, and it was powerful. Something I will never forget. The entrance is terrifying to see in person: "Work will set you free."

I only lost control of my emotions and properly cried once, at the Jewish memorial. It isn't the gas chambers or the crematorium or the barbed wire that haunts me. It's hearing the words "Never Again" when I know perfectly well that it could happen again. I felt sad and angry and helpless and scared knowing that there are those today who hate the Jews every bit as much as the Nazis, and that our best effort to stop them from starting another Holocaust is.. sanctions. Even as I write this this, I feel sick.

There were much more upbeat moments in Munich, too. Lots of bratwurst. Lots of beer. Pretzles and spetzle, too.

And a big win for Germany in the World Cup, which made for a boisterous walk home to the hostel.

All in all, I am glad that I visited Munich, as much for the friends I made at the hostel as for the sights. I don't need to go back any time soon.

Location:Munich, Germany

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Epic Mountain Adventures in Switzerland

One of the nice things about staying on top of a mountain is that you don't have to go very far to find a good, modest hike.

On my first morning in Gimmelwald, I had planned to take just such a hike. Perhaps I would walk an hour to the Sprutz Falls, where you can walk behind the waterfall and, as they say on the Disneyland Jungle Cruise, see "the back side of water." Just a modest hike on a rainy day.

Well, I got more than I bargained for. I joined up with four students from Utah who were hiking to Rotstockhutte (pronounced RAHT-shtock-hooteh). It was much further on the map, and had some unsettling elevation data, but it was a better proposition than hiking alone, so off we went.

Chip and Briana led the way, and thank god. Chip is as confident as he is athletic, and Brianna is a cheerful optimist. We needed all these virtues for survival. They also told me that I could eat the mountain strawberries!

The trails were muddy from days of rain, and at times we were walking through more, uh, bovine sludge than mud. Our hike took us down to the bottom of the valley and along the basin. It was stunning.

We should have seen the first bad omen. A herd of cows blocked our path, as if to say, I wouldn't go up there if I were you. They eventually relented, with three of them leading us up the hill for about 15 minutes.

Then the uphill climb began. Steep and muddy the whole way. Shoes and hair soaked through. We had only seen one other group of jokers the whole day, and we lost them. But halfway up the mountain, we got a beautiful reprieve: a meadow with a clear view into the glacier, plus lots of cows.

But as we went uphill, things went downhill. We saw our first flakes of snow, then fog, then lots and lots of white. And then we lost the trail.

Picture the scene: on a snowy slope with ten feet of visibility, the group splits. Chip and Briana, rugged and eager as ever, want to charge ahead and find the trail. The other two girls, whose sandals were not holding up to the rigors of the hike, were ready to turn back. Chip offers to run ahead to find the trail, and disappears into the fog. The girls turn around and try to find the way we came. And I think to myself, I've seen this movie, and someone's not making it back.

We found the trail. Briana and I caught up to Chip some ten minutes later. We came to our first signpost in a while, which told us that... WE MISSED ROTSTOCKHUTTE! Apparently our off-trail detour avoided our destination entirely. With the fog as it was, it could have been right in front of us and we'd still have missed it.

Things got much better on the downhill walk. The views were breathtaking, the snow and fog subsided.

And in the end, we even got to see the Sprutz waterfall. I was ecstatic.

YouTube Video

We made it back to the hostel six hours after we had left. I ate pizza and drank beer and washed clothes and hoped my shoes would dry and fed coins into the shower for one-minute spurts of hot water. I have never been so happy to have nowhere else to go and nothing else to do.

Epilogue: The girls made it back an hour and a half after we did, just a few minutes before Chip was going to go searching. They had borrowed clothes from a local living in a hut up in the mountains, leaving their camera as collateral. And I thought, yep, I've definitely seen this movie before...

Location:Gimmelwald, Switzerland

Gimmelwald: As Close to Heaven as I'll Ever Get

Directions: From Zurich, take the train to Bern. Transfer and take the train to Interlaken Ost. Transfer again and take the train to Lauterbrunnen. Get on the bus and ride twenty minutes through the valley to Stechelberg. Then it's just a five minute ride up the Schilthornbahn gondola through impenetrable clouds and...

Welcome to Gimmelwald.

Perched precariously upon a mountain, Gimmelwald is insulated (if not isolated) from civilization. It has one main street, one side street, and no stores. The Mountain Hostel, my home for three days, is also home to the town's main restaurant and bar. The nearest grocery store is a 30 min walk, or five minute gondola ride, up the hill in Muren.

I'm finding it hard to articulate what I loved so much about this place. It wasn't the tranquility per se, nor the beauty, although it had both. It was the comfort in knowing that there was nothing else to see or do other than sitting with friends in the Mountain Hostel common room.

The hostel itself was cozy, like a ski lodge without the slopes. There were four dormitories: the Little Boys Room, the Little Girls Room, the Family Room, and the Lovers Room (with bunk beds pushed up next to each other, for lovers and coed groups alike). There was one coed bathroom. In the shower, 1 Swiss franc buys you five one-minute bursts of water. The kitchen was clean but overcrowded. Except for the view, this place is nothing glamorous.

But when you get back from a day of hiking, there's only one place to be. There are no bar crawls, no clubs, no trying to decide between restaurants or shows or tourist traps that want your money. There is just the common room. And I loved that.

On a walk through town, you'd meet Erika Rosen, purveyor of cheeses, eggs, sausage and milk. We visited her cheese hut which had a wonderfully sweet aroma I'll never forget. After sampling, I opted for the 2008 cheese over the 2009.

And what customer service! The first time we visited, Erika didn't have enough eggs. So she ran out to get more!

Needless to say, the next morning we had fresh scrambled eggs topped with fine aged cheese. Yummm.

Past the cheese hut, the town is just perfect.

I'll have to save my post about our epic hike for another time. Suffice it to say that this was my favorite stop so far.

Location:Gimmelwald, Switzerland