The Fantastic Swiss Alps - in Winter from Wengen to Grindelwald
Zoé’s February vacation quickly descended upon us. Heading off to Geneva we started our journey by visiting some dear friends, Debby and Mark, whom I met in graduate school umpteen years ago Together with our other friends Kathy and Don in Salinas, we used to meet each February for almost ten years to cross country ski at Royal Gorge in Tahoe. Life moves on and we haven’t seen them for quite awhile and Mark is now working at the World Health Organization and Debby is enjoying the life of an expat in Geneva while their young adult girls are starting a life of their own.
Our first stop was the town of Geneva where Zoé immediately spotted the 150 meter water spout shooting into the sky.
“Where does she learn this stuff?” I asked Jean.
“Her comic books, her kid’s newspaper. Who knows? She knows more than we do these days.”
Her interest in not just comic books, but non-fiction and pieces of historic information amaze us. Who would think she would know about this water spout and how tall it was?
In February in sweaters and light jackets we wandered the lake, the old district and settled on an authentic Italian restaurant for lunch. A throwback to Little Joe’s, in San Francisco, we felt like we were home. Zoé’s pasta with a creamy sauce tossed with fresh basil, Jean’s pizza straight out of the wood burning oven, and my scrumptious mozzarella and tomato salad satiated our hungry stomachs.
Heading 15 km down the road to Nyon, where Debby and Mark live, we were astounded by the beautiful countryside, vineyards, fruit orchards, and open land. It was not what we thought. I’m not sure what we did think, but just outside the city, the landscape changed to open countryside to which we have come to love. Our reunion was natural and full as we spent time catching up and learning about life in Geneva as an expat. “I could live here.” I said to Jean. “It’s got everything I’m missing plus the countryside.”
Now, the one piece we forgot about or wanted to ignore, is that Jean and I have almost always spent a lot of time with Debby and Mark without Zoé (just adults for a ski weekend). As a result we craved to have the time to just talk to them and yet we had to consider Zoé. She was fantastic, understanding we wanted to catch up and kept busy with her Nintendo, books, and sometime watching their TV, but it soon came time to have some family fun.
To spur this idea on, our car’s clutch decided to go as we crossed over the Swiss border and ended up in the garage for a few days. As a result, Debby suggested we take the famous Swiss trains to the Alps and spend a few days skiing at one of the pedestrian villages, the perfect answer to a ski vacation. Checking out her pile of books and discussing options, we decided on Wengen, near Interlaken and the village of Grindelwald where I hiked 25 years ago when I traveled through Europe. It was family oriented, had a few beginner and many intermediate runs and most importantly we could get a hotel reservation (the last one available). Throwing caution to the wind (and money into the air) we ran to the Nyon train station bought our tickets and flew onto the train. Like clockwork our itinerary listing time of arrival, time of departure, and tracks, inferred that we had to transfer trains four times and had 4-8 minutes to do so in between trains. Nyon, to Lausanne, to Bern, to Interlaken Ost, to Lauterbrunnen, to Wengen. By the second train we had a system; Jean had the two bags, I had Zoé and my purse, and we ran.
Arriving at the last train station we found ourselves surrounded by skiers carrying skis, snowboards, and snowshoes. The entire mountain was at their disposal with one ski pass.
Five minutes later we stepped onto a skinny green and yellow trolley with wooden seats. Up, up, up it went climbing the base of the Jungfrau, the top of Europe.
“Ring, ring, Wengen.” The conductor called.
Offloading ourselves among the crowd we stood and stared up at the snow capped mountains and rock of ice above us. It was magnificent. Gathering our luggage we sauntered down the one pedestrian street lined with shops, restaurants, inns, and hotels. Kids were playing on the high trampoline and others were coming off the cable car back from skiing at the top of the mountain. The sun was shining and quietness and ease of the village could be felt without any cars on the roads.
A few minutes down the street we found The Bellevue Inn and our clean and modernized room for three. Checking in we were given a card for discounts in the village and told it’s best to rent our skis today and be ready to hit the lifts after breakfast. Walking back to the center (all of 5 minutes) we checked in with the ski rental shop at the base of the cable car got suited up and were told we could leave our equipment in the lockers for a fee. What a convenience; anything not to have to schlep. Next we stopped at a few shops and settled in on an Italian restaurant for dinner.
The Next morning we signed Zoé up for a private lesson and Jean and I skied alone for a few hours enjoying the snow, feel of the mountain, and watching her from afar. Whether it was age, physical ability, stamina, or interest, something clicked for her and she took off with speed, grace, and no fear.
After the lesson the teacher suggested we ski down to the village below Grindelwald and take the cable car back up. She thought Zoé could easily do it. Memories flowed back of when I backpacked through Europe and end up in a hostel on the top of the Swiss Alps in Grindelwald. To come here again in winter with my family was a return to my younger self.
After a fulfilling (and tres cher) lunch we headed down the mountain to Grindelwald shouting with glee. Following each other in a row, turning, gliding, sliding, and skiing, we yelped, hollered and sang. Jean yells, “Be careful there is ice.” And then he goes down followed by Zoé laughing at their tangled legs.
Passing chalets that dotted the mountainside, old barns, and a lonely cow we entered into the village itself. Crossing a road the sign warned us to stop for cars and cows. A small patch of snow over the road we traversed to the other side. Skirting ourselves as if we were on cross country skis we strode alongside the thin road, next to a restaurant serving beer and hot drinks, through a meadow, over a bridge, and down further into the valley. Finally after a bit of prodding and pulling on the flatter ground we passed over the river and skied into the cable car barn.
Skiing down the long slopes from village to village is a foreign thing to a California skier. Hiking is one thing, but to ski between the houses and through the village we were taken to a mysterious place. One of awe and simplicity and the awareness of how beautiful and unique are the Swiss Alps.
The feeling of skiing for the first time as a family was tremendous. It was as though we were all caught up together and were so intoned with the joy of life. I wondered how long it would last.
The next day skiing down the slopes and hearing Zoé yelling, “Faster, faster, you’re too slow.” I knew yesterday was to be cherished. Soon she was going to pass us up. We were cautious, careful skiers who didn’t like to fall and were not willing to take risks. She was just getting the feel of it and wanted to race with the wind.
Upon leaving we took one last look at the breathtaking mountains and the Jungfrau, vowing to return one day and get to the top of Europe.