Essays about life in Italy, traveling in Italy, and more
One Week in Engelberg, Switzerland
The mountain towns in Switzerland are wonderful places to be based for a week of hiking. We have done hiking weeks in several towns in Switzerland: Grindelwald, Zermatt, Crans-Montana, Davos, Kandersteg (Grindelwald and Zermatt twice). This trip we are spending a week in Grindelwald (because it has the best hiking and we haven't been there since 1997), but we wanted to try a new place. We selected Engelberg. It was a good choice. The hiking is not as good as Grindelwald, but it is still good (similar to Kandersteg where we were in Fall 2000) and there are many longer hikes.
The hiking in Switzerland is perfect for us. There are lots of easy hikes - 2 to 6 hours - and you can avoid the exhausting climbs by taking mountain rides up the mountain. You never need to worry about packing food because there are restaurants along the trail, so you can have a midday break and a hot meal.
Our vacation time in Switzerland is always the same. Up around 8am, breakfast in our apartment. Out hiking all day, back to the apartment for a quiet evening and dinner at home. It gives us a chance to be on vacation and get some exercise. This is similar to how we vacation in England. If we need to be working, we do that in the evening.
Saturday, August 24
Warm and sunny.
Saturday was a travel day. Checked out of our Zurich hotel, took a taxi to Europcar (booked through AutoEurope) and got our car. We arranged to pickup at the 33 Lindenstrasse location which is near the Opera house and near our hotel. This was a good pickup location - better than the one near the train station because the area is quiet, the office is not so busy and you can get out of Zurich easily. This office is open Monday - Friday, Saturday morning, closed Sunday.
We were picking up in Switzerland, but dropping off in Italy and they gave us a Mercedes with Italian plates. I guess we are just taking their car back to Italy for them - but a Mercedes!! Neither of us had ever driven one before. After 30 minutes driving, Steve, who cares nothing about cars and never drives ours at home, announces that we must sell the old 4 Runner and get a Mercedes. I have not driven the Mercedes yet - but will. We got an automatic.
The Europcar agent told us that if we even get a scratch on the car, we must contact the police and try to get a police report. We have a $250 deductible - you cannot rent in Switzerland without getting the deductible (in Italy AutoEurope offers zero deductible). I can't see contacting the police if we scrape against something!
Our first week of this vacation is in Engelberg, a mountain town at the end of a valley off the southern edge of Lake Lucerne. We have spent months in Switzerland, but have not been here before. I pulled out all my hiking books on Switzerland and made a list of all the towns they recommend for hiking and chose this one. They have a great web site in English (which indicates a well organized Tourist Office) and 3 gondolas to hiking areas from the town (a good amount of hiking for the week).
Driving from Zurich to Engelberg was 1 hr, 20 minutes. Stans, the main town along the lake, is 15 minutes from Engelberg. I printed out driving directions from mappy.com - and they were useless. They told you to follow directions for towns that I never saw listed on road signs. So we just followed the road signs and got there easily.
Engelberg is a lot like Kandersteg where we spent 10 days in October 2000. A small town at the end of a long valley. It seems to be a popular vacation destination with the Swiss, but we have not spotted any other Americans and only a few Brits. The valley that you drive along to Engelberg is picture perfect with several small villages and other hiking areas that we did not get around to trying.
We arrived in Engelberg around lunch time, but it was too early to check in, so we had lunch and explored the town. Went to the Tourist Office and bought a pass for the mountain rides and got hiking maps. You can get all the information you need for hiking from the local Tourist Office. They will have a simple map that they give you for free. This will show all the mountain rides and hikes. Then usually you can buy a more detailed map. The hiking signs are so good in Switzerland, that you can take a mountain ride, and figure out your day's hike from the signs at the mountain ride station.
At 3pm we went to the hotel that is owned by the people who we rented from. They took us up to the apartment and showed us around. We had paid a deposit by credit card and they said to go back to the hotel in the next few days to pay the rest with a credit car. With vacation rentals in Switzerland, usually you have to do a bank wire for the deposit and then pay the rest in cash when you arrive. It was nice being able to do this payment with a credit card.
Our apartment is fabulous. It is on the top floor of a house two blocks up the hill from the main part of town. Fabulous views and a short walk to the shops and mountain rides. A garage to park our Mercedes in. We probably won't use the car that much this week.
When we arrived, some type of techno party was going on in town. The town was full of young people and you could hear a steady throb of base reverberating through the valley all night long. They all left Sunday.
Got some groceries and made dinner at home. In the afternoons, classical music is played in the park directly below us. We could hear it from our balcony. We are just two blocks up the hill - enough for a nice view, but still an easy 5 minute walk to the main street. It is a bit of a hair-rising drive up a narrow and winding road to the house, but it is a regular paved city street.
Sunday, August 25, 2002
Warm and sunny.
Today was the first official day of the trip. Arrival day doesn't count, neither does the next day (jetlag day). Saturday was a travel day - they never count. So today the vacation starts. This is the advantage of taking a longer vacation. On the other hand, if you just prepared yourself better before you left, instead of working right up to the last minute then throwing everything into the suitcase in a panic, you might arrive rested and be functional earlier in the trip. Someday we will try that approach.
Engelberg is nicely full of people this weekend. There were lots of people out on the trails. I had read about the village of Engstlenalp in one of the hiking books and wanted to be sure we went there, so we went there first. The weather can turn bad quickly in Switzerland and so far we had warm days and sunshine - but it is best to do the hikes you really want to do on the good weather days and not count on good weather for the whole time.
Took a gondola from town to Trubsee. From there you can take a very expensive ride to Titlis (not covered in our lift pass - would be 76 CHF from Engelberg) - but we won't bother with this. At this point in our lives, we really dislike the "must sees". You can snowboard up there - but most people just go up for the view. We get a pretty spectacular view from just below Titlis. Years ago we took the long mountain ride to the Jungfraujoch near Grindelwald and it was not as much fun for us as a typical hike.
From the Trubsee gondola you walk across a small valley along a lake for maybe 15 minutes to get to the Jochpass chairlift. There was a restaurant at the top of the Trubsee gondola, but we walked to the one by the Jochpass chairlift and had coffee there. There are restaurants in the hiking (and skiing) areas all around here. Sometimes the food is just cafeteria style - but you can sit outside on a nice sunny terrace. Sometimes the food is really great with table service.
We took the open air chair lift up to Jochpass and then walked the trail from there. You could take another chairlift down from Jochpass to the Engstensee where you walk for 20 minutes to Engstlenalp - and if I were doing it again, I would do this. Get to Engstlenalp easily and then do more hikes from there. Instead we did a trail that went up from Jochpass, along the side of the mountain and then steeply down to Engstlenalp. The trail was rutted and rocky and was hard on the knees going down. It took about 2 hours (but some of that time was me just standing there and complaining). The views on the hike were incredible.
From Engstlenalp you can do a nice hike across the valley and then up a hillside to another valley with two lakes (Tannanalp). This looked like a better hike. It would be about 1 hour to Tannanalp and then you could hike further from there. (We did this hike later in the week.) Another better looking hike is from Trubsee - walk back down to Engelberg. The trail looks good with a gentle slope. About 2 hours. (We did this hike later in the week.) Still, we had a good walk - enough for our first day out.
We had lunch at Hotel Engstlenalp - rosti mit spiegelei (potatoes with fried eggs) and beer. Frequently, the only vegetarian choice is rosti or melted cheese sandwiches. Everyone else was having those huge German sausage things. We sat outside on the terrace and the place was packed - all Germans and Swiss. It was hard to get served because people would arrive after us and then wave for the waitress - it was like we were invisible. Finally Steve just flagged her down. Sometimes I think in Switzerland that the non-Swiss and non-German are sort of invisible - we don't have the same confidence and presence that they have.
The last rides go back around 5pm, so you need to get an early start on returning from a hike. After lunch (around 3pm) we headed back. Walked to the chairlift (about 20 minutes walk) and then took rides all the way back. It takes almost an hour to do the rides down to Engelberg. It started to rain lightly and at one point we were almost in the clouds. My boots did not seem as comfortable as usual - I think they are wearing out. I will be looking for new boots tomorrow.
We got back in town around 5pm. Some shops were open today (Sunday!). Our legs are sore - perhaps we should have followed through on that plan to get in shape before the trip. Oh well. I crashed on the couch for an hour, then spent another hour getting my computer to go online.
Monday, August 26
The sky was overcast, but the cloud cover was high up so it was fine for hiking.
Woke up with sore legs from yesterday's beginning hike. Took the cablecar (large gondola) to Brunni. The cablecar leaves from a couple of blocks from our apartment and we found a path to it cutting behind the Hotel Edelweiss so we did not have to walk down the hill to town and then back up again to the gondola station. The gondola leaves every 30 minutes.
We got on the gondola at the station and waited. A few other hikers got on. A nicely dressed, elderly woman stood on the platform. When the buzzer rang, signaling that the gondola would be leaving soon, she got into the gondola. A "driver" also got on (these things run themselves and don't need a driver). We started out up the hill, but about half way up we stopped at one of the big cable support structures that had a platform on it. This must have been the half way point, because the gondola going down stopped there too. The driver opened the door and pulled a gangplank down, the elderly woman walked out onto the platform. The driver left too, put the gangplank back up, went to the other gondola and got on it. We continued up the hill without the driver. Looking down I could see the woman had to climb down about 30 steps to reach the ground from this high platform. There were a few houses and farms close by. This must be how she gets back and forth to town. On our way back down in the afternoon, we saw a couple of school children do the same thing. This time we were on the going down gondola that the driver got onto to return to the station.
The Brunni gondola ends at Ristis. There is a restaurant and some things for kids here (playground, a slide thing, some farm animals). We were not able to figure out a good hike ahead of time, so we looked at the signs and picked one. (See the Switzerland section of the website for an explanation of these signs.)
We chose the Brunni-Pfad, a sort of nature trail. It climbed gently uphill on a good wide trail to the Brunnihutte - took 1 1/2 hours. Along the way we stopped at a farmhouse that offered coffee and snacks. It was just instant coffee - but you could sit outside with your mug of coffee looking out at the mountains.
There are two types of mountain restaurants (see my Switzerland notes later in this trip report for more details): snack type places at farms along the way and real restaurants at the gondola/chairlift stations. You don't get great food at the farm restaurants, but sometimes you can get fresh milk from their cows and homemade cheese. It is nice to stop when you see one of these, just for the break and to have a look around the farm.
We hiked more and had a good lunch at the Brunnihutte (rosti again), then walked back down to Ristis (another hour). This was a good trail. It makes a sort of circle from Ristis. We started in the direction of Alperbeizi Rigidalalp, then to the Brunnihutte, then the long route back to Ristis. We passed some farm areas, had beautiful views across to Titlis and on the top section walked in the alpine area above the tree line.
Back in Engelberg we went to the local shoe shop and I had my selection of hiking boots. Even at REI in Albuquerque they usually have only one type of boot in my size (womens 10-11) - but here I had a choice of about five different types of boots. I chose a lightweight German brand - Lowa (240.00CHF, in case you are thinking about buying boots in Switzerland).
Tuesday, August 27
More overcast today, grey sky with lower clouds.
Since the day was not great and our legs were now hurting from the little bit of hiking so far, we decided to go for a drive. We drove down the valley to the autobahn and then to Altdorf. There are several nice looking small towns down the valley from Engelberg. Some have hiking areas. If we get time, we will try one of them. There is also a small mountain town that it looks like you can drive to - Oberrickenbach up from Wolfenschiessen on the valley floor. Stans, the town at the end of the valley, is a larger, but very nice town. More shops and restaurants than Engelberg and only 15 minutes (21kms) by car.
It took just 35 minutes to get to Altdorf. We had a nice lunch at the Hotel Reiser Restaurant, in old hotel on the main square. After lunch we walked around the town, then drove up the valley to see where William Tell was born (but didn't stop at the museum - should have, we were being lazy) and to see where the hiking areas were.
Back to Altdorf for coffee and cake and some grocery shopping. Drove home around 5pm and it was starting to rain heavily. All day long it had just been overcast. We drove down the valley past Engelberg - there are a few more small towns and another good looking hiking area that we hope to try tomorrow.
Trouble with the car!
On the drive to Altdorf, a warning message appeared on the little screen on our dash. "Brake Assist - Visit Workshop" and "Elec Stabil Prog - Visit Workshop". Yikes. As we pulled into Altdorf, we came to a EuropCar office and stopped. They were closed for lunch (between noon and 1:30 as are many offices and shops). So we went into Altdorf and had lunch. I could not find a phone booth anywhere - I wanted to call AutoEurope - so we just went back to Europcar. The guy there did not speak much English and wanted us to take the car to the Mercedes dealership down the road to see what was wrong. Didn't sound too promising to me, but we went there, waited around for 30 minutes for someone who spoke Italian (no one spoke English) and he told us it has something to do with Winter driving and to ignore it. This message flashed all the time on the trip and we ignored it. The car seemed to be okay.
When we were booking this vacation in the spring, we were choosing between Altdorf and Engelberg. One of the hiking books I like recommends Altdorf, but the town web site was not in English and I could see it might be hard to find a vacation rental. So we went with Engelberg because they had an English version of their web site and online booking. We made the right choice (for us).
Altdorf is at the southeastern end of Lake Lucerne, just off the autobahn that leads to the Gottard tunnel. The town of Altdorf is charming, but the whole area is much busier and more built up than Engelberg. To get to the hiking, you have to drive to other small towns and even then it did not look as if there would be as much hiking as we have in Engelberg. I am crossing Altdorf off my list as a possible base for a hiking vacation.
Wednesday, August 28
Bright and sunny, with clouds at the mountain tops. They got lower by late afternoon.
After our day of rest, we were ready to get back to the mountains. Today we tried the third hiking area in Engelberg - Furenalp. We drove about 5 minutes to the end of the valley and parked (free to get in, but you had to pay 3CHF to leave!). This was the scariest gondola of the area - about as scary as the one in Kandersteg (October 2000). This was a small gondola car holding 8 people that went straight up a wall of rock. There was no tower until you were at the top of the rock face.
There were a few casual and chatty Swiss hikers with us. I sat with my back to the downhill and did not look out. I was terrified, and I didn't see anything. Steve was standing and saw the whole view and was terrified. But, I figure, what are the chances of dying in a gondola accident in Switzerland? They must be pretty low. The odds were with us.
There is a restaurant at the top of the ride, but who could even think of eating after that? There are two main trails from the top of this gondola - one high level walk back to Engelberg and one easier walk further up the valley and then back to the valley floor to the bottom of the gondola station. We chose the latter and it was the best hike of the trip so far. This would be a good hike to start out on. The trail was in good shape and gently sloped down. Some parts were a bit steep. There were lots of cows on the trail. You hike with the sounds of their bells as background music.
It was about 1 1/2 hours to a turn around point, but we extended the hike further up the valley to Blackenalp. This added a 30 minute uphill climb (nice after all the downhill), a stop at a farm for coffee (I am starting to like instant coffee) and to buy farm made cheese (15CHF-$10 for 1 kg - we bought 1/2 - it was really good) and then 30 minutes downhill to rejoin the trail. You could keep going up past this farm for longer hikes.
This farm was run by a friendly couple. She sat knitting until people arrived, he was working around the farm yard. They offered drinks and snacks. There were also hotel accommodations. You can only get there by hiking - no roads to this place. They also had public restrooms for the hikers (all the farms that have food available also have restrooms). She spoke perfect English and showed us the cold room where they store the rounds of cheese and the big kettle drum in the corner of the kitchen where they make it. Many of these farms are lived in during the summer only. The farmers come up from the valley floor and let their cows graze in the meadows. In September there is a special celebration in Engelberg to welcome the farmers and cows back to town for the winter.
We had thought we would get lunch at Blackenalp, but no real food was available, so we continued on the hike and made it by 1:30 or so to Stafeli, a place with a restaurant that can be reached by a private road. We sat outside with several other groups of hikers and looked out at the Spannort mountains. I had a small bottle of white wine (Fendant from the Valais region - smaller than a half bottle it was 3 dl). Steve had beer and we had, once again, Rosti with eggs. Again it was excellent. It is lovely to sit out in the full sun eating and looking at the incredible mountain vistas. We had a one hour easy walk back to the car. The total was about 3 1/2 to 4 hours of walking - a perfect hike.
We ran into goats on the path twice on this hike. The second time was a large group and they were very friendly. They would rub their heads up against us asking for patting. There is a photo in my online photo album showing me and the goats. Okay, I am wearing a Tilley hat. When I was packing, it seemed like a good idea. It is such an ugly hat that one of the only Americans we have seen in Engelberg actually gasped when she saw me wearing it. It is very comfortable and practical. Steve doesn't wear his. I guess that would be too much, the two of us marching along in matching Tilley hats. (I bought a new Swiss-style hiking trip the next week.)
We were home by 5 and had dinner at home - as we have had every night here so far. But all our lunches have been out. The washing machine in the apartment is broken, but the owner said they will do our laundry for us at the hotel, so I have to get that packed up to take to them. The pain in our legs is lessening - maybe we will survive this. I can't believe we only have two hiking days left here (I have three hikes that I want to do). Then we are off to Grindelwald. The news says the weather is bad again in northern Italy.
Thursday, August 29
Overcast with some sun breaking through. Warm on and off.
We woke up to clouds sitting on the mountain tops. Went into town and dropped our laundry off at the hotel. We need some more cash to pay for our vacation rental in Grindelwald, so we looked for ATMs. The first one rejected our transaction, the second one had a limit of 200CHF. We could not find any machines that took AMEX cards (but we also had a MasterCard ATM card). Maybe we will have better luck in Grindelwald.
We were all set to hike, but could not decide where to go. Clouds sat over Trubsee on one side and over Brunni on the other. It looked like there were breaks in the clouds over Trubsee, so we decided on a low level hike there. The gondola was not running - instead there was a funicular to the first level and then a large cablecar from there. We were with a large British tour group on their way to Titlis. Just another reminder of why we never take tours - everyone is herded like sheep up to Titlis to have a look and eat a meal, then down and onto the next destination.
Trubsee was covered in cloud, but visibility for hiking was good. We did an easy 2 hour hike down the mountain, back to Engelberg. First we walked along the lake, then down a steep hill full of cows. It leveled off to a nice hike after a bit. We stopped at Unter Trubsee for lunch. This restaurant is at the base of a mountain ride that was not running and can be reached by private road. It was cold so we sat inside. I had "kaseschnitte" - melted cheese sandwich. Steve had rosti. We shared a meringue dessert. This is a specialty of the area. It is really like a hunk of sponge candy - feels like pure sugar. They topped it with a huge amount of fresh whipped cream. Nice, but you would not want to have one too often!
From here it was an easy hour walk on a unused road back to Engelberg. Dinner at home, a quiet evening.
Friday, August 30
Sunny, warm - no clouds!
This was our chance to return to Engstlenalp and do the hike up to Tannenalp. We were at the Trubsee lift by 10am (should have started earlier, but we were used to cloudy mornings so were getting a late start).
Our passes did not work!! On closer examination, it was printed on them that they started on the Saturday and expired on the Thursday. I was furious, but we went over and bought the tickets anyway - over 80CHF ($60) - figures that today we would have one of the most expensive rides planned. (I will mention here that when we went to the Tourist Office at the end of the day to get our deposit back and complain, they refunded the money we paid for today's ride because they said it was their error and the pass should have started on the Sunday. I was really pleased that they gave us the refund and that we had just gone ahead with the day's plan anyway. We did have to talk them into the refund - I am ashamed to say that I even used the line "I run a web site for Americans traveling to Switzerland" - but we didn't have to complain too much and they willingly gave it.)
We took the gondola to Trubsee, walked over to the base of Jochpass, took the chairlift up and another down, then walked to Hotel Engstlenalp for coffee. It took an hour on the rides and another 20 minutes walking at the end. By noon we were just starting our hike. There were not many people on the trails or the mountain rides. When we were here before on Sunday, this area had lots of people. We met a group of three American women who were on an Untour - this is the agency that books your whole trip and escorts you to your vacation rental - well organized Slow Travel. I gave one of them our new Slow Travelers card and asked if she would write a review. (Never heard from her. I give my card out all the time when we travel - never hear from any of them.)
Engstlenalp consists of the one hotel with the restaurant and a few farms in a wide open valley. There is a lake at the end of the valley. The mountain ride comes down at one end of the lake and the hotel is at the other end.
From Hotel Engstlenalp it is 45 minutes uphill to Tannenalp. Most of it is a beautiful, gentle uphill. You only have a steep climb for 15 minutes or so. Beautiful views back down the valley to Engstlenalp. This trail went up along a hillside with some trees and fields of wildflowers. At the top you reached a large plateau with Tannenalp (a few houses, farms, a church, a restaurant) and a lake. If you walk another 1 hour 15 minutes you would reach another lake and the town of Frutt where you can take a gondola down to a town and then a bus to the train and the train to Stans, then change to the mountain train to Engelberg. This might be fun, but would take some time with all the bus and train changes.
We had hoped to hike to Frutt, but we had left too late. The rides back end at 4:30 and we would not have made it back to Engstlenalp in time. So we walked around Tannenalp, checked out the two restaurants there (didn't like the look of them), then went back down to Engstlenalp in time for a late lunch at the hotel. Steve had trout, I had rosti with cheese. Normally I do not eat much cheese and I am pretty much topped out on it now. Cheese and eggs for every lunch.
We had a lovely lunch sitting on the sun terrace. A group of elderly Swiss men were having a snack and I asked if I could take a photo of their beautiful cheese dish. One of them spoke in Italian to Steve and invited me to take a photo of "real Swiss hikers". See the photo in the photo album for this week.
The walk back uphill to the mountain ride was difficult after the big lunch, but we made it and started riding back by 3:30. Back in town we went to the Tourist Office (and got our refund!), did some grocery shopping for dinner and picked up our laundry from the hotel (it was very nice to have the laundry done for us).
Dinner in again tonight. For dinner I made plain rice, peas and a steamed head of cauliflower - no cheese! I keep having thoughts of a "night on the town" but we get back from hiking, read for a bit, use the computers a bit, then one of us has a bath - and we are too tired to think about going out.
End of Week 1
This has been a fabulous week. The weather was perfect, the town perfect, the apartment perfect. Our two favorite hikes were Wednesday's Furrenalp hike and Friday's Engstlenalp hike. None of the hikes this week were very long, but we spent lots of time outdoors and now feel in pretty good shape for another week of hiking in Grindelwald. We leave tomorrow morning and will probably spend some time in Meiringen before checking in at 3pm in Grindelwald. We spent two weeks in Grindelwald in 1988 and another week in 1997 and have always felt that Grindelwald has the best hiking in Switzerland. This time we are only there for 6 nights because we are leaving a day early to spend a night in Levanto on our way to Cetona.
Saturday, August 31 - leaving Engelberg
Sunny and warm.
A travel day. We packed up and checked out of the Engelberg apartment. Because the owners of the apartment run a hotel, it is easy to find them - they are always at the hotel. You have to drive on one block of a pedestrian street right by the hotel to get to the road to the apartment, and they are frequently outside serving at tables or standing watching the crowd, so you get to wave most times you drive by (or walk by).
To check out, we went down to the hotel and handed in the keys and the payment for the phone. Our bill was 32CHF for the week. We ended up paying twice this in Grindelwald. Even though you are dialing a toll free number for internet access, you seem to have to pay by the minute to use phones in the vacation rentals. There is a meter attached to the phone and they make note of the number when you arrive and you figure out how much you used when you leave.
Rudi and his wife (whose name I cannot remember) are very charming and friendly. Rudi's English is better than hers. They just did a motor home tour in the US in the spring - California, Utah and Arizona - to several National Parks. They said their motor home was big, but they were okay driving it through all the National Parks because of all the driving they do at home on mountain roads.
We had our first breakfast out in a Tea Room - "Fruhstuck". I really like these Swiss breakfasts. We had croissants, rolls, boiled eggs, coffee. 8.50CHF each for Kleines Fruhstuck. You can get other variations with cheese and meats. You will find the same type of breakfasts in Tea Rooms all over Switzerland.
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