Telling friends that we were spending our summer vacation in Switzerland with spouse and our neighbors (and their two children, Kate, 11, and Michael, 14) often brought looks of mixed admiration and surprise. Admiration, that we were going to take a vacation in such a beautiful place. Surprise, given the cost of everything in Switzerland and the voracious eating habits of teenagers.  But both reactions soon changed to incredulousness when they learned we planned to go hiking in the Alps. Based on the fact that the only regular exercise we had undertaken over the past few years had been pushing away our dinner plate after two oversized portions, friends were sure we would never survive the trip.

 


Yet, here we were, striding along comfortably in the Alps. Off to our right was a two thousand foot drop and over our left shoulder the snow-capped peak of the Schilthorn gleamed in the warm morning sun. The breeze was cool and gentle and we hardly broke a sweat under the weight of our daypack filled with a jacket, chocolates and bottle of water. Part of the reason we were so comfortable was that the "trail" under our feet was solid asphalt and we had gotten up to this sunny terrace via two aerial gondolas that required no effort whatsoever. No wild gasps for breath, sweaty brow or burning legs.


We were walking down the well-paved main street of the mountain village of Mürren, over a mile high in the Alps, and enjoying every minute of it. Pausing to enjoy a sip of water and a taste of a pastry purchased from the local bakery (Mürrener Mandel-Wappen - almond paste filled cake iced with the village "shield" in two colors of sugar) we reflected on the day's "hiking" journey so far.

 


Our morning had started in Interlaken. Not the Interlaken of the Grand Hotel Victoria Jungfrau with formal salons, waiters in tuxedos and three hundred dollar a night rooms, but the Interlaken of the Carlton Hotel. Firmly anchoring the east end of the Hoheweg, Interlaken's main street, the Carlton is what the Swiss call a "tourist" hotel. No formal attire, piano players or fawning staff. Built in the twenties and refurbished in the late eighties, the Carlton is civilized, comfortable and affordable.

 

Tucking away her last croissant with a large smear of apricot jam and a big gulp of orange juice, Kate grabbed for her daypack and announced she was ready. We could only nod assent, since our mouth was still full of wurst and emmentaler cheese (a full buffet breakfast was included in the room price). It was time to start our hiking adventure for the day.


 One of the unmentioned charms of the Carlton is its proximity to two of the most important edifices in town for undedicated hikers such as us; the local market and the Interlaken Ost train station. A short stroll from the hotel's front door put us at the source of bottled water (and the life-sustaining Toblerone chocolates that Michael thought indispensable) for our day packs. Crossing the street brought us to the train station.


 Interlaken Ost (East) is the jumping off place for excursions into the mountains. The somewhat rustic looking building housing the ticket office belies the ten modern platforms and bustling scene out back.  Swiss trains in general, and our Swiss Pass in particular, made our excursions a delight. The Swiss Pass, which must be purchased outside of Switzerland, provides unlimited travel on all major Swiss trains as well as many lake steamers, cog railways, aerial gondolas and cable cars, for either a month, fifteen or eight days. In addition, it is also good for travel on the buses operated by the post office and many city bus systems.  Based on the cost of normal train fares, the Swiss Pass is a steal. Given our propensity for comfort, we opted for the extra bucks and purchased the first class variety.

 


Climbing aboard the "BOB" train (Berner Oberland Bahn - Bernese Mountain Railway) we settled back in the roomy, upholstered seats. Having previously synchronized our watch with the official Swiss railway clock on the platform, we counted down the seconds to BOB's 10:02 a.m. departure. 10:02 came and went. 10:02:15 and still nothing. At 10:02:20 the BOB train pulled smoothly out of the station. So much for the vaunted Swiss efficiency. The country was rapidly going downhill. The BOB train was twenty seconds late. Then we giggled and sat back to enjoy the spectacular scenery on the twenty-two minute run to the mountain valley of Lauterbrünnen.


 After a brief walk through the village of Lauterbrünnen, the main street becomes a paved path, just wide enough to accommodate the local farmers' cars. The green fields and little chalet-like houses, while charming, are not what really define this wondrous valley. The main attraction is the unseen glaciers that send their cold, clear water cascading over the steep cliffs on either side of the valley in constant silvery plumes. The view is, in a word, spectacular. At twenty-six hundred feet, the valley floor is high enough to be a bit cooler than our Interlaken base and the hiking is comfortable.

 

As in most of the rest of Switzerland, the path was marked with a little yellow sign showing where it leads and how long it should take the average walker to get there. Our destination was the Trümmelbach Falls, a waterfall inside a mountain, and the signposted time from the Lauterbrünnen train station was fifty minutes. The paved path eventually led to one of gravel that traversed a meadow and crossed a stream before leading us to the Falls. With many stops for photos, our hike was about one hour in duration.

 


Trümmelbach is awesome in the true sense of the word. Glacial runoff water has carved a path though the interior of the mountain on its way to the valley floor below. A large enclosed car, part elevator part cable car, takes you into the mountain. As we hiked up the narrow paved path from the elevator, we donned our rain jackets since water spray was everywhere. The kids leapfrogged past us taking steps three at a time to find the next lookout point for this thundering torrent as we plodded after them. At the highest observation point, and clearly out of breath, we looked up to see a tiny patch of blue sky and the limb of a pine tree indicating the entry point of this underground river.

 


Exhilarated by our hike from Lauterbrünnen and our trip through the Falls, we repaired to the adjacent restaurant. Our neighbor, Lou, decided we had been hiking for bratwurst and now richly deserved same. Tasty veal bratwurst, hot from the grill and mounds of french fries never tasted so good. Our after lunch destination was the aerial gondola station at Stechelberg, a little further up the valley. We planned to take the postal bus to the gondola, but just missed it since we lingered so long over the bratwurst.  Rather than wait another hour, we decided to hike to Stechelberg. The walk, past lovely houses ablaze with flowers, took about forty minutes and finally the big gray gondola building came into view.


 

We shared the aerial gondola car with about twenty other tourists, a dog, and a little freight trolley full of vegetables and other supplies for the mountain villages. The ground rapidly dropped away as we were transported up the thin wire cable toward the ledge over two thousand feet above us. There were loud gasps as the car bounced over the tower on top of the ledge and then glided smoothly to a stop at the town of Gimmelwald. We changed to another gondola for the remaining few minutes ride to Mürren.

 


With the remnants of the cake tucked away in our pack, we continued down Mürren's main street to the railway station. The trip back down to Lauterbrünnen was accomplished in two stages. First, a cog railway that provided magnificent views as it wended its way along the edge of the escarpment to Grutschalp. There, we changed to a cable car that dropped straight down to the valley and discharged us a few hundred feet from the Lauterbrünnen station.

 


Good old BOB took us back to Interlaken. We had traveled a wonderful circle route and all our travel (two train rides, two aerial gondolas, cog railway, cable car and the postal bus if we had so chosen) was covered by our Swiss Pass. We had enjoyed some magnificent scenery. The kids participated fully in the adventure with no bored looks or whining. Most importantly, we had actually hiked a bit in the Alps.

 

Now, as we sat on the front porch of the Carlton sipping our wine we faced the only really critical decision of the day. Were we up to the hike to the other end of town for spaghetti carbonara at that little Italian restaurant?