8 September 2004

So, on Friday the 3rd, I loaded up my car and headed south. I left from the U.S. gas station in Mannheim about 0830 (I had planned to hit the road about 0700). I managed to clear the stau (Traffic Jam) that is a fixture of A-5 between Bruchsal and Karlsruhe-Durlach by shortly after 9. The remainder of my trip to Basel was uneventful. I did make the mistake of not stopping at Weil am Rhein to fuel at the last Esso before the border (Note for those unfamiliar: U.S. Forces in Germany get to use Fuel Coupons at Esso stations in Germany - fuel at a much cheaper cost than off the local economy). I paid for that mistake on Saturday, but I now know where it is, and will be sure to top off there on my next trip to the Confederation Helvetica.

At the Swiss border, I paid my toll for Swiss autobahn use (40 Swiss Franc) with 40, getting 10 back as 17.50 SF.

After crossing the first mountain range south of Basel, I was immersed in Swiss-German radio. In the 80s I didn't understand German well enough to appreciate the depth of the accent of Swiss-German. Truly a mind-bending experience for me. I could follow only about every 4th or 5th word, and those were pronounced as some odd blending of German, French, and Italian.

It was maddeningly hazy the whole trip south. I didn't see the first ridges of the Alps until about 11:20, when I was only about 30km from Interlaken. I reached the Thun lakeside by about 11:40, and it was the classic scene I remembered it to be. I stopped at a parkplatz (rest-stop) just outside Interlaken about noon, and shot some pictures. I only wish I could have stopped somewhere I could have gotten a good picture of that fantastically blue mountain-water lake. The haze was bad... I couldn't see far down the valleys, but it only marginally degraded the spectacular views. I almost had to fight back tears as it was... if it had been crystal clear I certainly would have.

I parked at the West-Bahnhof (rail station) in Interlaken, and exchanged some of my U.S. currency for Swiss. Now armed with enough for a few meals and souvenirs, I set out to get a quick tour of the city before my 30 minutes of parking were up. I got a quick sandwich from an imbiss (not quite sure how to translate that word - an Imbiss is a fast-food stand, but not like the American Fast-Food places. It's more like the hot-dog venders in NYC and DC, but not mobile. It's an imbiss.). In the big park in the middle of town, I saw my first Alpine Glacier in 15 years. Of course I got a picture :-D.

Returning to my car, I headed up the valley towards Lauterbrunen. I stopped a couple times to take pictures along the way. In Virginia, they would have been spectacular Mountain Views. In Mannheim/Heidelberg, they would have been very scenic, and quite photo-worthy. When I rounded the bend in the road and entered Lauterbrunen, the scene in that valley made the pictures I had just taken pale in comparison. The waterfall on the far edge of town took me completely by surprise - even though I had read about the waterfalls in the guidebook weeks ago.

I parked in the church parking lot, just downstream from the campground, and below the main waterfall. My first priority was to find a place to sleep that night. I had considered going for broke and getting a place in Wengen (a town up the mountain from Lauterbrunen - accessible only by foot or by rail). I decided not to. Next time I visit I'll probably go for it though. It took me about 3 or 4 stops before I found a Zimmer Frei (Room Available). I wound up with a 4th floor room, looking out the back of the hotel. If I put my head out the window, I had a view of the waterfall and on up and down the valley. As it was, I had a nice view of a field below, and the pine trees along the top of the cliff-face on that side of the valley.

After getting my car moved to the "free" parking at the hotel, I walked down to the local Bahnhof, and got myself a round-trip ticket to Kleine Scheidegg (the top of the pass below the mountain peaks of the Eiger, the Mnch, and the Jungfrau. The Berner Oberland Bahn is a cogwheel train that climbs the near-cliff wall on the east side of the valley. First stop from Lauterbrunen is Wengen. Another picturesque Alpine town, built into the side of the mountain. There is a cable-car station that connects to the ridge above.

Above Wengen is the Wengeralp stop - just about at the tree-line, with a spectacular view up and down the valley, and two draws (one up towards the Kleine Scheidegg pass, the other up the ridge on the opposite side of the valley).  Kleine Scheidegg was little more than a rail-junction when I was last there in the 80's - just one real building (with a restaurant and most likely some hotel rooms). From that rail junction one could transfer to another train that goes down to the next valley over, and the town of Grindelwald. There is also a separate rail line that goes from Kleine Scheidegg up to the Junfraujoch - noted as being the Highest Rail-station in the world (something like 3000 meters elevation) - above the Glacier that spans between the Jungfrau peak and the Moench peak.

Now, Kleine Scheidegg is significantly larger. There are a half-dozen good sized buildings, and three or four restaurants. There's one that is positioned directly below an outcrop over the pass, with a terrace that overlooks both sides of the outcrop. I had a late lunch overlooking Grindelwald and the Eiger. The Hirsch Gescheneteltes was extraordinary - Literally something to write home about. For those that don't know the name, it's Venison cutlets with a cream sauce, spaetzli (swiss variation on Spatzle), bacon, cherries, and gooseberries. Quite possibly the only dish I've found that is better than the Neurot Rham Schnitzel from the Fiedler Bauer (my benchmark for that style of food).

After lunch, I debated taking the hiking path to the top end of the cable-car, and taking that back down to Wengen. It was listed as about a 2 hour hike, and I didn't want to get stuck up on the mountain as the sun set and the train stopped running, so I opted out, and took the train back down to Wengen. I got out and toured Wengen, and priced the Cable-Car - quite pricey. Glad I didn't go that way to come back down. Rather than take the train the rest of the way down to Lauterbrunen, I chose to follow the wanderweg (walking path) down - posted time: 1 hour. About 200 meters elevation down, I ran into a couple of Aussies who were on a whirlwind tour of Europe. They had mutinied, and had struck out for the afternoon; planning to return to their group that evening.

All told, it was 400 meters of a vertical descent into Lauterbrunen. I staggered back to my car, and retrieved a much needed lieter of water. After restoring my fluid levels, I retired to my room to clean up, and prepare for dinner. I went down the street a few doors, and had Rosti (essentially hash-browns, but that's an over-simplification) while watching the sunset colors play on the snow-capped peaks to the south.

My evening walk was cut short by rain,  forcing me back to my hotel to dry off. Desert was a Coupe Danemark (Vanilla Ice Cream, whip-cream, and chocolate sauce - my traditional Alpine Desert, nothing to do with the alps per-se, just my own tradition) under the awning on the terrace in front of my hotel, listening to the rain fall.

The next morning I awoke to a stunningly crystal clear day, with not a single whisp of cloud to be seen anywhere - and with me needing to beat-feet for Ribeauville France ASAP. I packed up, had a quick breakfast, checked out, and headed UP the valley beyond where I'd gone the day before to get what pictures I could before heading north. Half an hour later, and two dozen pictures later, I was headed back down the mountain, towards the German Border (and an awating Esso station). I was down below 30L in my tank, and had question if I had the fuel to make it. It was close, but I kept my eye on my fuel consumption rate and made it to the Weil am Rhein, Germany - just past the border - with about 10L left.

I discovered while there that my strip-map and directions to Riquewihr/Ribeauville France were MIA. I had Ribeauville on a map, and recalled enough of the directions to get myself in trouble. I pressed on north, to a bit north of Freiburg im Briesgau, before heading towards the Rhine and France. Before I crossed the border, I made a phone call (while sitting at a stop-light) to one of the conference coordinators to get a better stab at the directions. Now a little bit better off, I charged off across the Rhine and into Alsace (one of the provinces of present day France that has changed hands between the French and the Germans numerous times). Shortly after entering France, I passed some of the Maginot Line fortifications from the inter-war era. (I stopped by for a tour on my way home on Monday).

Turns out the improved directions weren't much help, but a few wrong-turns later, and coming in the back-way, I found my way into Riquewhir. This is an OLD walled town. Very Germanic in appearance - Fachwerk (half-timbered) houses all over the place. I found a parking place (planned to be temporary, wound up being all weekend), and wandered my way into town about noon. The tower and gate I entered through dates to 1291. Inside I found narrow winding cobblestone streets, and colorfully painted and decorated fachwerk buildings. Not knowing where my hotel was (just the name - Au Cerf) nor where anybody else was, I wandered my way down the main street. It was not long before I found a member of my party, and he showed me where my hotel was.

SNAFU - the hotel clerk didn't speak English, and I don't speak French. Fortunately, both of us spoke enough German to get by. Checked into my hotel, I ran into more of the group at the entrance. The coordinators had not yet arrived (a couple of bad Stau's between Heidelberg and Freiburg). By the time I came tromping back from my car (looking very much the tourist) one of the coordinators had arrived. I finally got the schedule for the day - Next Event: a wine tasting at 1530. Timecheck: 1310. So, I took some time to explore and photograph the town.

Two hours and 58 pictures later, we began gathering at the hotel, and wound our way to the bus (the Vilseck contingent brought it) and then headed to Hunawhir for our wine tasting. To say it was a TIGHT fit for the bus in some of the narrow streets is an understatement. We cleared a few spots with less than 1" on either side. Once or twice I didn't think we were going to make it. A few jokes about going back too get the adds from the side of the bus back, and we were at our destination. This particular vineyard had been in operation for 9 generations in the same house (since the 1500s). I am not a wine expert, but by and large I found the wines to be better than most I had tried. The specialty of the vineyard is a Riesling. I am not a Riesling fan, but it was reasonably good. Four samples of wine, and 6 cleric's wine purchases later (that's a few hours worth right there), we were headed back to Riquewhir.

I had dinner in an ancient courtyard a few doors up from my hotel, before the group gathered for fellowship in my hotel sitting room. Father Gianni plucked at the guitar, and the rest of us complained about the horrendously smelly French cheese. The wine wasn't bad (again, I know next to nothing about wine). We finally stumbled our way to our respective rooms a little before midnight (this is a predominantly military group - midnight is a late night for us, and 7:30 am wake-ups are sleeping in). I set my alarm for 7:30, and went to bed. I woke up well before 7:30.

Breakfast was a fantastic selection of Croissants and miscellaneous French Pastries. The Coffee cups were about 7" across,  and just about as deep. Big even for Cereal Bowls. The big Coffee drinkers joked about only having one cup, or half a cup.

About 10am, we loaded into the bus, and drove off to Ribeauville for Church and the Parade. I had gotten myself a bright red hat in Switzerland on Friday, and I had been asked to wear it on Sunday because it could easily be picked out in a crowd, and would serve as a good rally-point. Which was a good thing, as we got ourselves lost and turned around... and once we DID get ourselves going the right way, I served to guide most of the group through the crowd (I was following the one person who knew where to go) to the church.

It was not the oldest church in town... just dating to 1597. Our organist had a blast substituting her regular Electric organ with a 300+ year old pipe-organ. By the end of service, she was playing anything and everything she could. We wound up having to unplug the (modern) electric pump to pry her away from it.

The Parade was quite the show... nothing like you'd see in a stateside parade. Well, the marching bands maybe. I would have to take MANY pages to describe the parade... I'll just have to let the pictures (eventually) tell the story. What the pictures don't tell, is that apparently we were sitting directly in front of the local French Rednecks. This local family did everything they could to re-enforce the negative French Stereotypes. I can't stock it up to simple anti-Americanism - they thought I was Swiss (the hat, remember? it did wonders for making the locals think I was Swiss). This family was crude, rude, obnoxious - hurling insults, shooting people with squirt-guns, and throwing their garbage and empties into our group. I was very tempted to resort to my training and "disarm" them... but I didn't. I guess I really didn't want to have to explain to my CO on Tuesday how/why I had conquered an EU member state on my holiday weekend.

On my way home on Monday morning, I stopped at the Maginot Line museum before crossing back into Germany and returning to Mannheim. I had some 500  or so pictures to sort through and burn onto CD. It took me well into the evening to archive all the pictures, and several hours into my Staff Duty shift to index them all.

I decided on Saturday morning that my next long weekend I'm going back to the Alps. I hope to do the Bernina Express Rail Excursion from Chur, Switzerland to Torino, Italy and back, yet this fall. After having a dispute this weekend with one of the civilians who work for the Installation Management Agency on whether or not the General Walker was torn down, we'll just have to make one of those weekends a trip to Berchtesgaden to verify... among other things :-D (Berchtesgaden is the picturesque Bavarian Alpine town where I attended spring Family Conferences with my church in the 80's. It is also where Adolf Hitler's home and Mountain Retreat house - the Eagle's Nest - were. It is spitting distance to Salzburg, Austria - the location of the historic von Trapp Family, and the filming of the musical The Sound of Music. The "hills" that are alive, and the mountains you see in the opening are the very same mountains.) So much to see... so little time!

I'd include the pictures with this email, but I don't think any of you have the 450MB mailbox you'd require for even a compressed set... you'll have to wait until I finish trimming them down, picking the best, and putting them on a web-site... or until you get the CD copy :-D. In the mean time, I hope you've enjoyed touring Europe vicariously through me this week, I know I enjoyed touring it in person. (And yes, I _am_ trying to rub it in... come on over here and I'll play tour-guide! It's far more fun with company than solo).