One of the greatest joys that this year has afforded me is the ability to hike through some of the world’s most beautiful mountain landscapes. New Zealand offered some truly epic peaks from which to bear witness to glorious sunrises. The volcano calderas of Indonesia, smoldering and magnificent, were reminders of the raw and brutal power of nature. Nepal’s Himalayas absolutely stupefied, towering overhead and soaring through the cloud line to provide an unambiguous and unrelenting reminder of just how small I truly am.
All of these places have been magnificent, and each brings its own pros and cons to the table. The Everest region, for example, is incredibly rewarding and humbling experience for those willing to commit a few weeks to its splendor. In terms of sheer hiking enjoyment for single-day adventures, though, I’ve found my new champion in Switzerland’s breathtakingly gorgeous Alps. My time here was based in the tiny mountain town of Gimmelwald, perched atop a mountain high above the Lauterbrunnen Valley in Switzerland’s Jungfrau region, part of the Bernese Oberland.
It’s a joy to hike here for a variety of reasons. First, transportation infrastructure throughout the region is absolutely flawless. Trains, buses, and cable cars are ample and comprise an incredibly well-connected network throughout the entire surrounding region. These are spotless, incredibly punctual, and provide gorgeous panoramic windows through which to soak in the views, like the shot of Lauterbrunnen, below, that I took from the window of a cable car. This means that it couldn’t be any easier to get where you want to go to start a hike, or to take an easy return trip if you’re exhausted at the conclusion of another.
I’ve never seen trails that are better or more clearly marked and mapped; signage is abundant, clear, and helpful. While this may seem minor, it makes a tremendous difference and inspires confidence. As you can see, this whole area is truly a natural playground just begging for exploration.
The tiny mountain villages of the Jungfrau are a real joy – they’re incredibly peaceful, idyllic, and friendly. There’s something really refreshing about seeing honesty shops and even honesty fridges set up outside of private households, the latter of which usually contain fresh local cheese, milk, and sausage with a small box in which to leave your money in exchange for goods. These places are unmanned, and trust their patrons to do the right thing.
I stayed at the Mountain Hostel, a small refuge atop a mountain (true to its name!) that had come highly recommended by many backpackers in the know. There was a real communal atmosphere here; fellow hikers gathered in common areas to enjoy local beers, have dinner, watch Switzerland’s World Cup matches, and plan adventures for the following days. I met a lot of really great people here!
As if that wasn’t reason enough to love the place, several incredible hikes began right on my doorstep, making this the perfect home base from which to explore the surrounding area. And what a breathtaking area it was. There were times during my treks through the region when I thought I might burst into tears from the sheer beauty alone. 70+ waterfalls are dotted throughout the area, hiding around virtually every corner and cascading gracefully down steep rock faces.
Tiny mountain homes are dotted throughout the area, dwarfed impressively by sensational snowcapped mountains. Don’t be fooled, by the way – despite their imposing mass, the altitude here is low enough as to not present any issues at all with thin oxygen or altitude acclimation like the risks present in Nepal.
Lush green fields burst with vibrant wildflowers against vivid blue skies. Many of these fertile grounds teem with cows, goats, and often not many other signs of life at all.
You’ll often spot paragliders overhead, peacefully soaking in the beautiful surroundings.
In fact, you might just decide to see the valley from above, yourself – and while you might expect that this would be a tremendous adrenaline rush, it turns out it’s actually an incredibly relaxing and borderline meditative experience.
Regardless of your chosen adrenal pleasures, Switzerland has got your fix!
For the truly crazy, this is also the world’s top destination for base jumpers… but I left that to the professional lunatics.
Aside from taxing the adrenal gland, I went on several incredible hikes during my time here. I left the bast for last, embarking on a brutal 9-hour ascent with my new friend Colby that culminated in the most incredible mirror-like lake: the perfect place to sit and reflect on the energy we’d expended to get there. (I gave Colby a lot of shit for his choice in footwear, but he made it ok!)
Even now, a month removed from my time here, I can taste the cool, crisp mountain air and the sweet glacial water, straight from the springs to my bottle.
The primary word that comes to mind is ‘joy’. That’s what you feel here – the elation of being atop mountains, hiking amidst staggering beauty on wonderfully maintained trails, breathing in pristine mountain air with great new friends – knowing all along that you have a comfortable bed close by. It’s enough to make you giggle like an idiot every now and then.
It’s for all of these reasons that this part of the world is my favorite so far for embarking on leisure/day hikes. Regardless of experience and fitness, there are lots of amazing trails to explore, and you can easily spend a few hours or an entire day tackling them. The scenery is incredible, the trails are pleasant, the company is good, and the infrastructure is world-class. This amounts to an incredible little slice of paradise that I can’t wait to explore again!
Gruyères & Geneva: Cheese & Aliens & Particle Physics, Oh My!
While I was sad to leave my mountainous paradise behind, I was pretty excited for what still lied ahead. I’d be taking further advantage of Switzerland’s stellar rail system to make my way west, with two destinations in mind. The first stop would be Gruyères, the famous home of a particularly delicious Swiss cheese, and another particularly odd destination: this town is also home to the HR Giger Museum, which displays the life work of the twisted artistic genius behind the Alien films.
Gruyéres is a gorgeous place, isn’t it?
I had the privilege of touring a cheese factory and learning about the production of the town’s namesake cheese. Of course, the responsible thing to do was to sample a bit of it, as well – so I did so with a traditional Swiss fondue. Nice light lunch!
(If you’re curious, don’t worry… I’ll teach you about cheese production a bit later in my post about Italy). After obtaining a satisfyingly full belly, my next stop was the aforementioned HR Giger Museum, which turned out to be quite a trippy experience. The juxtaposition is odd – here I stand in a quiet, idyllic swiss town characterized by architecture that’s beautiful, classic, and dare I say a bit tame. All the same, it’s the home of this haven for all things macabre, twisted, and bizarre – a physical embodiment of the dark mind of HR Giger, whose paintings, sculptures, film props, and even furniture are on display here.
Photos aren’t allowed in the museum, but I couldn’t help but sneak the one above. Since I’m sure a few of you are curious, though, I’ll share some of Giger’s artwork below – this will give you a pretty good idea of what I saw.
Like I said – the dude was dark! I really enjoyed exploring the museum, though – and especially the attached museum bar (which does allow photos, so long as you enjoy a beer!) Wild, huh?
Just a handful of hours after I’d arrived in Gruyéres, it was time to hop back on a train to Geneva. I was heading here for one reason and one reason only: I desperately wanted to visit CERN (The European Organization for Nuclear Research), home of the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC.
In short, the LHC is the the largest and most complicated experimental research facility in the world. It’s a giant circular tunnel, 17 miles around, built underground and spanning parts of both Switzerland and France. It was the product of over 10,000 scientists and engineers from more than 100 countries, and cost more than $10 Billion to build. In simple terms, its goal is to recreate the conditions present within milliseconds of the Big Bang, essentially capturing a snapshot of the beginning of the Universe as we know it in order to gain a better understanding of who we are and where we come from. This is a grand experiment of unprecedented ambition, and it represents the life’s work of countless physicists from around the globe. These photos compliments of CERN.
Essentially, the LHC accelerates opposing proton beams through the tunnel in opposite directions until they reach the speed of light, and are then directed to collide. At this point of impact, the LHC captures a staggering amount of data and analyses the resultant explosion of particles from this collision. The amount of data and resultant storage capacity required for this sort of collection and analysis is absolutely mind-bending.
To say that I’m radically oversimplifying this would be a gross understatement, but what I’m trying to portray here is the fact that this is some of the most ground-breaking scientific work in the history of mankind. The men and women leading the charge in this research are modern day heroes in nerd guise, and their research is making tremendous strides towards understanding the universe at large. If you’re even a little interested in this, I highly recommend that you watch the great documentary Particle Fever, which I believe is still available on Netflix.
At any rate, since I knew I’d be in the neighborhood, I was really excited to nerd out and pay these guys a visit with a guided tour. Unfortunately, things aren’t quite that simple. Daily tours are available in an extremely limited capacity, and demand is incredible. Though the tour is free, spots are made available months in advance and book out instantaneously – literally under a second in some cases.
This was the case for me – even after enlisting a few good friends to help try and snag a spot, I was unsuccessful. I wasn’t about to give up, though – this was something I really wanted to see. So after exhausting all possible options – including calling in a favor with a mutual friend-of-a-friend who used to work at CERN – fell flat, I made one last-ditch effort: I found a contact, sent a nicely worded last-minute email, and explained that I’d already made arrangements to travel to Geneva for this reason alone – was there any way they could accommodate one more individual attendee? In short: Ask and ye shall receive.
I was in! The kind folks at CERN were nice enough to slip me into a group of PhD Candidates from Oxford and the University of Toronto. Let me tell you – I was excited to be there, but these giddy folks looked as if they were lining up to exchange their virginities for a bucket of winning lottery tickets.
Our guide for the day was Mario Campanelli, PhD, a Particle Physicist and 20-year CERN veteran. I probably didn’t need to tell you that Mario’s a particle physicist, though – his outfit pretty much does the explaining for him.
Questionable Italian fashion sense aside, Mario is a literal genius, and I couldn’t have asked for a more fantastic guide to show us around the CERN facilities. He quite literally wrote a book on the topic.
Because most of Mario’s audience was a bunch of geniuses-in-training, much of the dialog ultimately went just a bit over my head – but I still managed to learn a ton during my half-day at CERN. I was thrilled to see the control room where real-time analysis of collision patterns takes place, and see some early prototype particle colliders.
Ultimately, it was an incredibly informative day, and I really sensed that I was at ground-zero for something truly special. I hold the men and women of CERN in very high esteem, and look forward to seeing what future headlines they’ll make as they work towards unraveling the mysteries of the universe.
On to the next one!
Despite its incredibly high cost of living, traveling through Switzerland proved to be a real joy. After a stunning modern art showcase in Basel, a fun sunny romp through Zürich, several jaw-dropping days of Alpine adventure, forays into the cheesy and bizarre in Gruyères, and an absolute nerdgasm in Geneva, it was finally time to bid this beautiful, well-run country adieu. I really look forward to returning some day.
In my next post, I’ll continue my Eurotrip, making stops in Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Brussels, and Paris before kicking off 3 weeks in Italy. Stay tuned!