Gimmelwald, Switzerland – Rome, Italy – Europe Day 25 – June 21

I woke today and made cheese sandwiches with what remained of my food. I said goodbye to everyone I had met there and packed my bags to leave. If I stayed another day I would have liked to have explored the ice caves, but with the heavy snowmelt, it was probably for the best that I didn’t go into any ice caves. I left the hostel and made my way to Interlachen. A cable car ride, a bus ride, and a train ride later, I was at the train station to go to Spiez, Milano, and finally Rome. I had a layover in Spiez, a city that as far as I can tell had nothing but a train station. Unfortunately, the train station was under construction though so it didn’t even really have that. I restocked on meat, cheese, and bread at the Co-op, my lifeline in Switzerland Europe, and returned to the platform to charge my laptop and catch up on this blog.

The train for Milano arrived 20 minutes late and I boarded for the 3 hour trip to Milano. This was the loudest train I have been on so far, with a large Indian family next to me and an even louder group of giggly German girls behind me. With the 20-minute delay reaching Milano, I had about 5 minutes to catch my connecting train to Rome. I narrowly made it as the whistle sounded and the doors closed.

Stepping onto the train I did a double take thinking I was on the wrong train. This was by far the nicest train I had ever been on and it even said second class, the cheap seats. I asked the woman sitting across from me, who looked like a model if this was the right train. She looked at my ticket and confirmed I was in the right place. Lucky me. I settled in with my iPod and watched the world quickly disappear behind me as the train got up to speed. In three hours I would be in Rome, a city sitting on the fence separating ancient antiquity and modern Europe.

The ride was beautiful, we passed crystal clear water surrounded by little Italian houses and vineyards. As we neared Rome, the greenery became more scarce and the houses migrated closer and closer together. By the time we reached Rome there wasn’t a dot of green left. Only sunbaked houses and very tan people remained.

Stepping off the train in Rome’s main train station I was overwhelmed with people rushing amid the numerous name brand stores and fast food joints. Leaving the train station was like entering a whole other world. I was missing the train station already.

If Switzerland was a socialist utopia, Rome was Thunder Dome on meth. Cars raced through lights, intersections, and crosswalks. To leave the sanctuary of the sidewalk was to take your life into your own hands. People shoved past each other jockeying for sidewalk real estate and quarreled amongst themselves in the streets, slow roasting themselves in Rome’s intense heat.

As usual, I was completely unprepared for my next city and had to find a McDonald’s for their free wifi, to locate my hostel. Luckily the train station was surrounded by McDonald’s, there were literally 5 McDonald’s around the station. Unfortunately for me, none of them had working wifi. I hoped this wasn’t foreshadowing for my upcoming stay in Rome. I found an internet cafe and bought internet for a euro and located my hostel. It was one of Europe’s Famous Hostels, and lucky for me, it was a 5-minute walk away from the internet cafe.

I got back in my time machine and left the internet cafe to return to the present and walk to the hostel, checked in, dropped my bags off, and hit the bar. After a long day of travel, a beer was all I needed before I went back upstairs to recover from today and prepare for tomorrow.

Gimmelwald, Switzerland – Europe Day 24 – June 20

Being in Gimmelwald, without any attractions or specific sights I “had to see”, I thought this would be a good opportunity to sleep in. I woke several times but forced myself to roll over and go back to sleep. When I finally woke up, it was 9am, so much for sleeping in.

Bryant was sleeping in the bed next to mine, and we got up about the same time and met Alex, already up. The three of us got ready and made our way to Murren, the next town over, and the only town in the area with a grocery store, Coop. The three of us stocked up on food for the hike and set out. Leaving Gimmelwald at 1363m we traveled to Murren at 1638m then onto Spielbodenalp at 1793m. From there we hiked along a ridge until we reached our first peak Bryndli at 2025m. At the top of Bryndli was an iron cross and a stone bench, the sort you would kill Aslan on. Beneath the cross was a small box with a book in it for everyone who’d hiked the mountain to sign. I was the 5th Floridian to have climbed the peak, beat out only by the group from Tampa the day before. We stopped for lunch at the top of the peak, feasting on cheese, bread, cookies, and Nutella.

We were still 600m away from our goal of Birg, the second highest peak in the area you could hike to. Wasenegg was next at 2280m, at this point Alex went on ahead with the goal of reaching Schlithorn, the tallest peak. Bryant and I continued on towards Birg via Grauseeli at 2315m. Grauseeli, despite not being the highest place we hiked to, was my favorite stop. Grauseeli is a glacial lake formed from snow runoff from the two peaks it divides, Schlithorn and Birg. The water collects in Grauseeli then spills out through a waterfall and runs down the mountainside. Bryant and I filled our water bottles in the glacial lake with ice cold water straight from the glaciers above it. From there, we crossed the top of the waterfall and made our way up to Birg at 2677m. At the top of Birg on either side of the trail were large banks of snow 3-4ft deep. When we finally reached the peak, we could see for miles in all directions. I took pictures, but none of them will do justice to the vista that lay before us. A camera can only capture so much and I could only capture so much more than that myself. It’s truly breathtaking standing at the top of the world and being able to look down on everything you know. Bryant and I stayed at the peak for a half hour walking around it, taking pictures, and eating cookies with Nutella.

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We made out way back down via a cable car and stopped into Coop again for dinner supplies. Back at the hostel, we feasted on eggs and pasta. After dinner, Alex finally made it back. He had hiked up to Schlithorn and finally made it back. His trip took the better part of the day and led him through a lot of snow towards the peak. Neither Bryant nor I were equipped for walking through snow so it worked out well that we went to Birg. That night we played cards and exchanged hiking stories from that day, before turning in for bed around midnight.

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Bern – Gimmelwald, Switzerland- Europe Day 23 – June 19

I woke up repacked and prepared for traveling in all manner of vehicle today. Marve, the Finnish girl I had met at the hostel, and I ate our breakfasts together in the common room and walked to the train station to go to Interlaken, for a Yodeling festival she had heard about and subsequently convinced me to go to. Arriving in Interlaken was like stepping back in time. There were people everywhere in traditional yodeling clothing eating sausage and drinking beer. When in Rome right? Marve and I fit right in eating sausage and drinking beer with the locals. After our hearty lunch her and I found a spot to watch the 50 section parade. This is the second longest parade I have ever been to, and the longest parade I have ever sat through. There were 50 sections to this parade, not 50 floats, but 50 groups of floats. The parade was pretty good. There were people yodeling, playing alp horns, twirling flags, throwing cheese and candy into the crowd and an occasional marching band. Two hours later the parade was over and Marve and I found our way back to the train station to go our separate ways. Me to Gimmelwald, and her to a Swiss city I cannot even begin to spell.

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This is the part where my journey really gets interesting. From Interlaken, I took a train to Lauterbrunnen, a bus to Schechtlburg, and a cable car up the mountain to Gimmelwald, a town of 120 inhabitants, perched 1363m up the mountainside. Taking the cable car up to Gimmelwald, we passed huge waterfalls hundreds of feet tall, cliff faces even taller, and mountainsides taller yet. The whole area had a certain epicness to it. Everything was breathtaking and enormous, almost beyond comprehension. I don’t know if I will ever find another place as beautiful as Gimmelwald as long as I live.

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Almost everyone on the cable car was staying in The Mountain Hostel in Gimmelwald and we all quickly made friends. After checking in and dropping our stuff off, Alex, from Michigan, and Bryant, from Minnesota, and I went for a hike along the river and mountainside, passing streams and cattle, woods, and mountainside fountains.

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On our way back, we stopped in Gimmelwald’s only 24-hour store, the Honesty Store. No one works in the Honesty Store, you just walk in, pick out your groceries, add up the prices on them, and put your money in a little wooden box at the back of the store. I bought a giant can of Raviolis for 3CHF, quite a bargain in Switzerland. I really liked the idea behind the Honesty Store. I feel like people entrusted to follow the honor system are more likely to respond virtuously than people forced to obey laws and rules backed by the threat of punishment.

That night in the hostel, I met a tour group traveling from Tampa, about 20 minutes from my house. The tour guide had been their teacher in high school and was starting his own travel company. His former students were his guinea pigs on his first Europe tour. The group’s tour was to end in Rome, the same day I arrived, with the teach continuing on to Eastern Europe. The two of us made plans to meet up later in our trip after his students had left.

Several of the students were now Gators and I had a great time reminiscing with them. The group was leaving the next day and left me their food from the hostel kitchen. I was set for dinner the next night. We spent the night playing cards, with the group teaching me how to play shithead, a great game with a vulgar name. Around midnight I turned in.

Bern, Switzerland – Europe Day 22 – June 18

I woke up and made friends with the Finnish girl, Marve, in the bed next to mine. We made plans with the couple from South Carolina to go to a market and buy breakfast. At some point on the trip to the market, we lost the South Carolinans and the two of us remaining returned to the hostel to eat our newly purchased bread and cheese.

In the common room we met a girl from Chile, Ori, and after breakfast, the three of us went to Einstein’s apartment/museum with a stop at H&M so I could buy a jacket/windbreaker. It turn out Einstein lived in Bern for some time and enjoyed his stay here. On the tour of the apartment, I learned Einstein was one bizarre guy. He had an affair with his cousin and divorced his wife to marry said cousin. After Einstein’s apartment, I walked back to the hostel and Marve and Ori walked to another Einstein museum. Back at the hostel, I ran into the Chicagoans and we said goodbye to each other before they took the train to Zurich.

When Ori and Marve got back to the hostel, we made a run to the supermarket to buy ingredients for our delicious pasta and brie lunch. Over lunch we decided this was such a good idea we should do this for dinner as well. This meant going out to the supermarket we had just returned from and buying everything we needed before 6. On a side note, this has been some of the best and cheapest food I have eaten here. I highly recommend communal food shopping for meals when staying in a hostel.

That afternoon we rented bikes, free in Bern for the first 4 hours, and explored the cities many sights. We rode over one of Bern’s scenic bridges to the bear habitat and took some amazing photographs of two bear cubs trying to pull down a tree so they could reach the leaves on top. They had no such luck while we were there. Next stop was the rose garden, and then back through the city and over another bridge to a nature preserve with some of the most beautiful woods I’ve ever seen.

After we returned the bikes, the three of us walked back to the hostel and made pasta for dinner. I edited pictures after dinner and went to bed soon after, in preparation for a long and bizarre day of traveling tomorrow.

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Paris, France-Bern, Switzerland – Europe Day 21 – June 17

Alex and I woke at 6:30 and I packed my last few things. On the way to the train station, we stopped for chocolate croissants one last time. While we waited for the train, a bird pooped on Alex, I felt bad because she was so sweet, but it was funny to see and it gave me something to smile about before leaving Paris. Alex cleaned up in the bathroom and walked me to my train. We said goodbye for now, but with the intention of meeting up again, hopefully during this same trip through Europe.

The train ride was becoming second nature to me. I got on, made myself at home and stared out the window listening to my iPod. I was starting to really enjoy the train ride. Watching the city I had just visited slowly disappear behind me and a new city appear before me provided some amount of closure to that leg of my journey. It was a chance to reflect on my last experience and plan for the next one.

The ride through Switzerland is incredible. Switzerland is by far the most beautiful country I have ever been in. The train ride took me past crystal clear lakes, rolling hills covered in lush foliage, and soaring mountains with snowcapped peaks. Every inch of Switzerland not taken up by fairytale village was covered in various shades of green foliage. From a distance, it looked like a giant model train set with beautiful hills and mountains laced with railroad tracks.

When my train arrived in Geneva, I wasn’t feeling it. I walked around the city and it didn’t interest me, so I got back on the train and went to Bern about 30 minutes later. I love my Eurail pass. I caught the next train to Bern and it even arrived early. Then I found out it wasn’t my train and I was going to an entirely different place that I had never heard of. The guy eating McDonald’s in the seat across from me told me which stop to get off at and transfer trains. I got off in Lusanne, maybe, and asked the conductor where I needed to go for Bern, he told me track 2 but it was leaving in less than 5 minutes. I felt like Jack Bauer racing beneath the train tracks to catch my next train, stopping only to sample free iced tea from a cute girl handing out promotional bottles.

When I finally made it onto the train, I met a bunch of Americans Bern-bound, a group of girls from Chicago and two guys from Iowa. We talked and shared stories of our travels as travelers do. When we reach Bern, we said goodbye to the Iowans and I walked with the Chicago girls to their hostel, taking one tram through the city, sans ticket. Lucky for me there was a bed available in the hostel and I made a reservation for two nights.

That afternoon the Chicagoans and I walked through Bern and down to the riverside. Walking through Bern, I was awestruck with how beautiful a place it was. The entire city was spotless, not a single piece of trash anywhere, I looked. The city looks as if it’s been transported out of a fairy tale. All of the buildings are old wood frame houses with little roofs and gabled windows. Bending around the city center is a fast moving river of vibrant blue water that you can see to the bottom of. Sloping up on one side of the river is the town of Bern, and on the other side are steep mountainsides with beautiful little houses. Connecting the two banks are a series of very tall bridges surrounding the city and spanning the river below. The city is so clean you can swim in the river snaking through the city, a claim most cities cannot make. If the water had been warmer, I would have swum in it, but it was somewhere around 16 Celsius that day. Nevertheless, we saw a few Swiss brave the cold and dive in.

Along the riverbank, we met some Germans staying in our hostel and made plans to meet up that night. We continued our walk along the river bank in search of syringe vending machines the Chicago girls had heard Rick Steves talk about. None could be found and it began to rain. We raced back to the city, running from one covered area to the next.

That night the Chicagoans and I met a couple from South Carolina, also staying in our hostel, and walked to a restaurant we had been recommended by the hostel. The restaurant was outside of town, across a bridge, and next to one of the former bear pits the city is named for. The menu had entrees listed at 30CHF, about $35. We left.

That night I bought the cheapest food I could, a McDonald’s Hamburger for 2.50CHF, the Big Mac was 11CHF, roughly $14. Back at the hostel we rendezvoused with the Germans and drank beer in the hostel. I told them about my trip and they told me about theirs. They were driving from Dusseldorf, Germany to a wedding in Switzerland the next day and had stopped in Bern for the night. One of the guys, in particular, recommended I try the traditional dark beer that Dusseldorf is famous for, and also that I should have 5.0, the cheapest beer you can buy in Germany. No advertising, no label, other than 5.0, its alcohol percent. By the time the Germans and I were done talking, we were the last people left in the common room of the hostel, and we called it a night.