Switzerland

After overextending my Munich stay by two nights, I was ready to head to Switzerland. All along my trip I pretty much knew which cities I wanted to try to go to, and could easily rattle off my plan on where I was going. One exception to this all along the way though was Switzerland. I definitely wanted to go there, I just had no idea as to where in Switzerland. After taking in as much advice as possible from other travellers and friends who had gone there, I decided that the town of Interlaken definitely sounded like a good place to spend my time at. My overstay in Germany meant that I would have limited time in Switzerland, which was alright though because I had heard many a times how expensive it is and there the two things I really wanted to do there that I knew I could fit into one day. So after my train rides and transfers went off without a hitch once again, I was in Interlaken at 11pm on Saturday night the 11th.

The town of Interlaken is definitely the smallest place I have visited, only about 5,700 people actually live there, but it is one of Switzerland’s biggest tourist resort towns, especially for backpackers like myself. Interlaken is located in central Switzerland right in the heart of the Alps, and gets its name from being situation right between two lakes (Inter-between, Laken-Lake). Interlaken serves as the base for not only people looking to do the normal mountain resort things (ski, snowboard, hike), but also as a popular place for adventure seekers looking to do things such as skydive, river-rafting, paragliding and base-jumping. While I wish I could have snowboarded, it was an unrealistic dream for this trip. Going for a hike in the Alps was a given while I was there, but I wanted to make sure I was able to do at least one thing there that I have never done before and that would scare the shit out of most people to do.

I had booked one night in Interlaken at the Funny Farm Hostel on hostelword.com. I knew I would most likely stay two nights, but this wasn’t the hostel I really wanted to stay at so I just planned on finding one the next day for that night, since I knew Sundays aren’t hard to book hostels for. Upon my late night arrival in Interlaken, I immediately set off to find my hostel. I knew it was about a 15 minute walk, but I was not given very good directions besides that to the hostel. Interlaken also happened to be the one place I had been that my travel book didn’t have a map of. 45 minutes and a complete circle of the town later, I found my hostel. I was exhausted from a long day and not happy with my pseudo-tour of Interlaken while carrying my big backpack, so I got checked in and decided to just call it a night. I had a big day coming up anyway. 

A few different people I know from Wales who had gone to Interlaken earlier this break had gone paragliding while there and said it was the coolest thing they had ever done. I had thought that this was something that I might want to do and while in Munich Katie and Steve told me all about their experiences paragliding and they had convinced me. I have always wanted to go skydiving, but I have been pretty hesitant about it, and I figured paragliding would be either a good substitute or a stepping-stone to it.

First thing I did when I woke up Sunday morning was go to the “adventure desk” at my hostel. This was just an area set up where you can book pretty much any type of adventure activity you want. I did a little looking around and reading up on things to do, and then decided paragliding was definitely the way to go and reserved a spot for an hour later. I then went and got ready and was picked up from the hostel right at 1030am. The person who picked me up was a dude from South Africa and was driving a mystery-machine like van. I was the first he picked up and it was nice talking to him for a while about everything from rugby to life in South Africa compared to Switzerland. The next two people we were suppose to pick up ended up being no shows so we then went to the place where I would get my equipment and meet the instructors.

This meeting point happened to be behind a family restaurant, you may have heard of it, Hooters? Not because the best way to calm pre-paragliding nerves is to eat wings and enjoy breasts (chicken duh), but because it is located right next to the large park where the landing point is at. There was one other guy there waiting, plus the two instructors, one for each of us. The other guy was a first timer and was from England, so we had plenty to talk about.

The paragliding is done tandem style, meaning you jump with an instructor strapped to you. My instructors name was Raymond. It just so happened that he also the instructor for one of my friends, Sean, who paraglided back in February. Raymond is one of the coolest guys I have met. He is born and raised in Switzerland and just has that no care in the world attitude and was really nice.

At this point, Raymond and the other instructor basically just gave us a run-down of what we were going to be doing and answered any questions we had. They then had us change shoes to some boots, only because it sometimes is muddy at the jump point. We then got loaded back up in the van with the parachute packs and drove up the mountain for about 20 minutes and then walked 10 more minutes to the jump point.

To give you a better idea of exactly what paragliding is; it is basically a combination of skydiving, base-jumping and hang-gliding. The biggest difference between it and skydiving and base-jumping is that there is no free fall. A paraglider is a free flying, foot launched aircraft. The pilot of it, and in this case the pilot and me, sit in a harness that is suspended below a fabric wing, which is shaped by the dozen or so suspension lines and the air entering the vents in the front of the wing. To begin the flight, you stand on a cliff/high hill/mountain ridge that gives you enough room to have a running start with the wing placed behind you, and then run and jump/float off the edge. You then have two handles to control the direction and speed and you descend back down towards Earth.

So we got to the top of one of the mountains overlooking Interlaken that had a nice grassy ridge on it. There were already about 4 other paragliders, both singles and tandem, getting ready to jump. Raymond and I got in line and started to prepare for our departure. He first strapped me into my harness and gave me my helmet, then laid out our chute and then strapped himself into his harness and helmet. There was really not much of a safety introduction or much of an explanation of exactly what to do prior to this either. I did ask him a few questions, like about how much air-time we would have, and he said usually 10 minutes airborne, 15 if we lucky with the winds. I was a little bit nervous about doing this, but once we got up the mountain there really wasn’t any time to worry, it was all business.

From there Raymond strapped us both in to the chute and told me to watch what other people were doing. He also tied my camera safely to a string so I was able to hold it and take pictures and videos while we were flying. Raymond also had his own camera, and he had made this thing for it where he had it placed on the end of about a four-foot pole and could control the camera from the handle. He had said that he was going to take pictures and videos while we were flying also, and that I should take mine too, but if I liked his better that I could buy a dvd with all of them on it from him at the end. I told him to go ahead and shoot away, but I was thinking at this point I will have plenty of good pics/vids from my own camera and I didn’t need to purchase any.

 Raymond then told me what we going to do to take off. This basically consisted of waiting for the right wind, then running towards the end of the cliff, not jumping, but waiting for the wing to catch air and lift us. We waited for the wind to be good and before I knew it we were running towards the cliff. It felt like we just ran off of a cliff and never fell. I liked his style, no bullshit, all business.

Our takeoff went perfectly and I then felt the greatest rush of adrenaline ever. I was actually paragliding in the Swiss Alps. I’ve never felt such an excitement, it was absolutely unbelievable. Right away Raymond explained that we had caught a really good wind, so he was able to keep us up the highest point for a good amount of time. We circled around for a few minutes as high as we could and then gradually started our descent back towards Earth. I was telling him the whole time to keep us in the air for as long as possible, but don’t make it boring, swing us around and stuff. He took this to mean steer us straight towards the side of a cliff and scare the shit out of me and then turn and barely miss it at the last-minute. He was good.

Before we started and while in air Raymond kept saying too how he hoped we made it to the landing point. I don’t think he was joking at all, he actually sometimes gets bad wind and misses the landing mark and has to hope to avoid trees and buildings. We were good though and on course for the square by Hooters in the center of Interlaken that served as the landing zone.

After he had us on the correct line for the landing zone he let me take hold of the controls. He was telling me what to do and allowing me to swing side to side and do some circles. Raymond had been taking videos and pictures the whole time, as was I, but this gave him a chance to take a lot while his hands were completely free. I didn’t know I would get to steer the glider, so that was a nice little surprise and was really fun. When we were only a couple hundred feet from the ground when he finally took back the controls from me.

I then thought we were just going to slowing glide down towards the landing spot, but instead Raymond decided to make it a little more interesting by swinging us way up to one side and then dropping us. This actually felt like a real free fall and was a little bit scary, but the chute would soon catch the wind full and we’d be back to normal. He did this a few times as we got real close to the ground; maybe because it was a little dangerous and he figured that if he screwed up bad enough the fall probably wouldn’t kill us from this height. I think it was at this point that I realized I didn’t sign any health waivers…

Raymond then brought us down for a nice clean landing where we just got our feet ready and caught ourselves with a few steps and then jogged forward a little bit to make sure the chute didn’t land on us. After a big high-five to Raymond and his recommending me as a paraglider pilot to the camera, I asked how long we had been airborne. I had no idea, I was loving it so much I had lost total track of time, it felt as though we were up there for an hour. He checked his watch and said we had a good one of 15 minutes, 5 over the average. I absolutely loved every minute of it.

I then checked the pictures and videos I had on my camera, and then Raymond gave me his camera to look at while he packed up the chute and we walked over to Hooters. As I looked at his pics/vids I realized they were much much much better then mine, mainly because of his long camera pole, and the lots of practice from doing it multiple times a day, so I ended up buying them from him. The hostel had screwed up on my deposit too, which saved me 30 Francs, which was the price of the pictures and videos so it ended up being pretty much free. He then burnt me a dvd with everything on it and I thanked him once again and I was on my way.

Paragliding is the coolest thing I have ever done, and not only that, if I could choose anyplace in the World to do it, I think it would be in the stunning Swiss Alps

I then headed back towards my hostel to get my backpack and on the way to it was the Interlaken Villa Hostel, the one I had heard great things about and had wanted to stay at. I checked to see if they had availability for that night and they did, so I reserved a bed. I then went and got my bag from luggage storage at the other hostel and went back to the Villa and checked into my room.

After getting settled there, I talked to the hostess about things to do and where would be a good place to spend the afternoon hiking. She ended up pulling out like 5 different maps, brochures and train/tram timetables and gave me like a whole presentation on possible things to do and what she suggested to do for the rest of the day. I took her advice and took everything with me, as well as two pockets full of the free chocolate bunnies for lunch that they had out on the counter, and I was off.

I started off by taking a scenic train ride farther up into the mountains to where I would start my hike. From there I started hiking through a river valley between some of the most impressive mountains in the area. On one side of me was the Jungfrau mountain region, which at one peak is the highest train station and viewing area in Europe called the Jungfraujoch. This is endlessly touted as the top of Europe and is one of Switzerland’s main tourist attractions, but it takes 6 hours to get to from Interlaken and way to expensive for me, especially after my costly paragliding experience. On the other side of the valley there were a few resort towns halfway up the mountains and then another high train station/viewing area, which is often promoted as place where a James Bond movie scene has been filmed.

My plan was to hike the 2 hours (what signs said it was) through the valley, with one stop on the way, and then take a cable car halfway up the mountain to one of the resort towns and then hike back along the paths between those towns and then back down on a cable car to a train station and then about 5 hours later be back at Interlaken.

This valley was spectacular. The small river cutting through it was beautiful, there were hundreds of feet tall waterfalls all around me and then not to mention just the fact that I was in the Swiss Alps. There were also a lot of base jumpers landing all around me who were coming from the cliffs on both sides. It was kind of scary sometimes because you wouldn’t know they were coming, and then all of a sudden I would hear a thunder like noise, which was there chutes opening, and they wouldn’t open them until the last second. Some had the body suites on which connected your arms and legs with wing like appendages so they could literally fly for a while, which was amazing to watch. Maybe I’ll try that next time!..

After about an hour of hiking through this valley, I once again randomly ran into an American from Swansea. This guy’s name was Nick and was from Rogers State. He was coming from the other direction and had basically done the same hike that I was just starting but the opposite way. We talked for a good while there and then decided we would try to meet up later. I asked him where he was staying, and it happened to be the same hostel, same room and the bed right next to mine. So random. That made it easy in that we would just meet in our room later that night. He also suggested going to these glacier waterfalls that were hidden back in one of the cliffs. The lady at the hostel also told me to go to them and they were just ahead of where I was at so that was my next stop.

The glacier waterfalls were called Trummelbach. They were set back in the side of one of the mountains along the valley I was hiking through and it cost about 5 Franks to go see. There were actually 10 different waterfalls in all and they  drained the mighty glacier defiles of the three peaks above. I got my ticket and was taken up to the top of them by a tunnel lift thing. I then went through a labyrinth of caves that gradually led back down to the valley and had lots of viewing areas of the waterfalls. I had really never seen anything like this and the pictures I took don’t really do justice to how cool it really was, but the videos do help somewhat. I read that this also happens to be the only glacier waterfalls in a mountain that is still accessible in Europe.

After the glacier waterfalls I continued my hike on to the end of the valley. At the end was a small village and a cable car station. I took one of the cable cars halfway up one of the mountains to another small resort village.  From there I hiked back the way I came, but this time I was halfway up the mountain hiking with a cliff overlooking the valley on one side and the steep mountain on the other.

It was getting a little late in the day and so I only saw 2 other people on my entire hike on the side of the mountain. The views from this trail were astonishing though. The weather in the valley had been absolutely perfect and no snow at all, but once I got up here the temperature dropped a considerable amount and the ground was snow-covered. It took me a couple of hours to hike all the way back to the next village that had a cable car, which I took back down to a village that had a train station. From there I took a train ride back down to Interlaken.

Once I got back to Interlaken I headed back to my hostel. At the lobby of the hostel I ran into Nick. The hostel had a free cappuccino/coffee/espresso machine and even though I don’t really drink that crap, Nick and I sat and had a mug (I’ll take whatever’s free) and talked about our travels and what not. After a while of talking we both decided we were hungry and decided to go find somewhere to eat. Since it was Easter Sunday not to many things were open, and so we ended up settling on Hooters.

At Hooters I had wings, of course, and the TVs actually had ESPN America on, which was showing the NHL. This was the first time I had seen ESPN for a long long time, but even though it was just hockey it was still nice to see. Wings were good, as for the Hooters girls, not the greatest.

I would like to point out that I was now in the 4th week of my break and this was the first time I had eaten anything at all that can be even close to considered an American restaurant/chain/eating establishment. One of my goals for my backpacking trip was to completely stay away from American places. Mainly I really just wanted to stay away from American fast-food places, which I did. I figured this would force me to totally immerse myself in foreign culture’s cuisines. By this I mean I always wanted to eat at local places and get traditional meals, and other than that I would eat fresh food from markets and then my free hostel breakfasts. So I broke this goal somewhat by eating at Hooters, but hey, we had limited options and how many people can say that they’ve eaten at a Hooters in the Swiss Alps?

After dinner we headed back to the hostel and sat in the commons area and hung out for a little bit then called it a night. I woke up in the morning and fully took advantage of the above average free breakfast spread that the hostel had. I had a train to catch at 10am and by the time I left I had totally stuffed my self. Part of the reason for this was that I was out of Swiss Franks and didn’t want to have to go to the ATM before I got out of Switzerland that afternoon and back to the Euro, so I wanted to be travelling on a full stomach.

I was then off to the South of France. My train ride consisted of train switches in Bern and Geneva, Switzerland. I spent most of these train rides reading a book that an Aussie in my Munich hostel gave to me. The book was an undercover investigation into the current Italian Mafia. It was really interesting to read, especially since I’ve now been to many of the places that were talked about in the book. Totally randomly, one of the guys I sat next to on the ride from Geneva to Nice was reading the same exact book, but in French. I made some “were reading the same book” motion to him, and he smiled and said something in French, and I had no idea what he was talking about so I just gave him a “haha yeah” laugh and then he looked at me weird. Damn Frenchies.

I didn’t spend a whole lot of time in Switzerland, but overall I loved the country. The biggest downfall and buzz kill of it was that it was really expensive though. If it weren’t for that I would probably say it has been my favourite country so far. The whole place is absolutely beautiful, from each and every train ride, to looking out my hostel windows, hiking in the Alps, and then to flying high above the Alps it was spectacular. The paragliding was definitely the best thing I did during my break and probably the coolest thing I have ever done in my life. I had said before how I have always wanted to skydive, and I was extremely tempted to after how much I enjoyed paragliding. But two main things kept me from doing so; I didn’t quite have the money to do another expensive thing like that and I didn’t want to ruin my paragliding experience by either having skydiving totally overshadow it or have a bad time and ruin my day. But paragliding in the Swiss Alps = Huge thumbs up!

It was now time for some relaxing fun in the sun in the South of France.

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