It was about more than just the exercise; I wanted to get some pictures of the mountain ranges around Lauterbrunnen. With the help of the hostel owners, I picked out a long, challenging track that would presumably give me a good views of the area.
The first leg was a sharp ascent to Wengen, another tourist town which sat high above Lauterbrunnen. The trail consisted of several very steep switchbacks out of the valley, finally ending in a small, deserted town. I was looking for restaurants, cafes, window shoppers, and the like, but it didn’t seem like tourist season had started yet. I picked the first bench I came across, ate a snack and caught my breath.
From there the trail followed the ridge above the valley in which Lauterbrunnen sat. Now that I had reached the top, there weren’t too many inclines and much of the track was under the canopy of forest trees. It was at once disappointing and relieving: even though I was grateful for the shade, the mountain vistas were largely shielded from view. Every now and then there would be a break in the trees, or a specific lookout, and I could spend some time admiring the magnificence that are the Swiss Alps.
At one point a truck drove by and a man asked me if I had seen another man walking by, going up the mountain. He described what the person might be wearing and kept saying that he was “different” or “special.” I told him a man had passed me earlier, but he didn’t look like anything special to me, but what do I know. I asked the driver if he wanted me to pass on any particular message if I ran across his marvelous friend, but he simply said that no, he would find him.
I found a lookout area close to my end point of Wengernalp which stood out from the plateau I had been walking on. Think of the corner of a tabletop. A picnic bench had been placed there, courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Swiss Bankaccount, so I sat down and had another snack. Although the hardest part of the trail had long since passed — the steep walk up to Wengen — the entire track had still been uphill, and I was exhausted. My only discipline and resolve came from two hard facts: First, having lived as a backpacker for so long, I had conditioned my wallet to a degree that I would stealthily cling to the underbelly of a wild bear before spending travel money on an unnecessary train ticket; And second, the way back would have to be all downhill.
I kicked the volume on my iPod all the way up to ’11’ and lay down on the bench for a quick nap. My laziness actually paid off because soon after resuming the trail I was treated to a small avalanche on one of the mountains facing me across the valley.
Trail markers told me that I was close to my destination of Wengernalp. In my head I imagined a kind of Shangri-la, where scantily clad Swiss women fed me fondue, hot chocolate and pastries. I would strike up a conversation with the owner of a hotel and he would give me the VIP suite for the weekend, on the house, of course.
When I finally made my way up the last hill to the town, all I found were a few deserted houses and a deserted hotel. Oh, and a deserted train station. I used the toilet, which was thankfully unlocked (and thankfully deserted), and ate an apple as the train heading up the mountain rolled by. My hunger for fondue and chocolates went unabated.
The walk back did turn out to be all downhill, which took considerably less time than the way up. Just as I got to the switchbacks I passed the man in the truck, who was now walking a bicycle up the hill, accompanied by a young man who was indeed special. Finally realizing what he had meant, and feeling a bit foolish, I said hello and told him I was glad he found his friend. Apparently the poor guy had wandered into Lauterbrunnen and couldn’t — or didn’t want to — get back home.
As I crawled back into town, feeling like one of those soccer guys from Alive, I realized that I had few supplies left at the hostel and, being Sunday, the supermarkets might not even be open. I managed to sneak into a bakery/convenience store just as it was closing (in fact, as I daydreamed about exactly which cheese I might possibly maybe want to eat, the owner told me to hurry it up because she wanted to go home — derailing me from my laborious decision-making process to the point that I didn’t buy any cheese at all). I returned to the hostel dead tired, hungry and satisfied at my accomplishment that day … until I talked to Rachel. She had instead gone paragliding, which apparently involves jumping off a cliff with nothing but a parachute strapped to the back of the guy who is strapped to your back. It sounded incredibly exciting, even if a little pricey, and I started wondering if I should’ve substituted a shorter walk and an adventure sport for my pilgrimage to the ghost town of Wengernalp.
Although I had already eaten a light lunch/dinner, Rachel approached me with the offer of joining her and a few other girls for fondue. I couldn’t pass up a chance to eat copious amounts of melted cheese, so I accompanied her, two young South Korean students and a Chinese woman about my age who was living and working in Paris. The South Koreans were talkative, lively and fearless. That’s the one thing about them I most admired: despite knowing very little English and being far from home (granted they were in the “Little Seoul” of Western Europe), they had no reservations about going up to people and trying to talk to them or posing for ridiculous pictures in the middle of the street.
The restaurant was full and the servers told us to come back in about 30 minutes. There was only one other restaurant open, so we walked down the street to see if they had an open table. As we got closer we heard a band playing outdoors and saw columns of fire leaping out of big, upright logs (imagine taking a tree stump about a foot thick and splitting it down the middle, but only halfway down the height of the stump. Then pry apart that split so you have a little cavity, then build a fire in the cavity. It was a really cool effect). It looked like they were having some kind of festival. There were people standing outside, eating and drinking, and the band played lively music from the sidewalk across the street. We walked into the restaurant, but alas they were full too. I asked the waiter what was going on, and he mentioned the name of something I can’t remember. He asked if I knew what it was and I said no, expecting an explanation. From the horrid description he gave me (possibly due to the language barrier), I could only make out that it was either a Christmas thing or a celebration for a hunting party.
Nearly 30 minutes had passed and we walked back to the first restaurant. Now, what I’m going to describe may not truly illustrate the experience we had at this establishment. The words I have in my vocabulary won’t do it justice, or maybe I should say, won’t serve it justice.
Right off the bat the waitresses completely ignored our request for a table. There was one that had opened up right near the entrance, but the three waitresses who were working that night couldn’t be bothered letting us know if we could sit there. So we just went ahead and claimed it. The poor South Korean girls went around the restaurant borrowing empty chairs until we had enough. And then we sat, without menus, for about 15 minutes. Finally, they gave us 2 menus for 5 people. I got up and went to the server’s area and got some more. Then we waited, and waited, and waited. The waitresses didn’t even bother taking our drink order, but they were more than happy to refresh drinks, take orders and dish out food for the other patrons.
At long last one of the waitresses came to our table and asked if we were ready to order. I suggested we order our drinks and food immediately, so we all ordered a round of drinks, then attempted to ask her questions about the fondues. Her expression made it seem like we just asked her to spell everything on the menu. She gave a few half-answers to our questions then disappeared again. After repeatedly asking passing servers for some help, we at least got our drinks. Another long wait and the waitress decided to let us order. Again, we tried to get her help on ordering, but the best she could muster was to suggest that we get fondue for three people, and it would be enough for all of us. And so we ordered. After a while, they brought us a basket of bread but no fondue. I only assumed the fondue was on it’s way, but it wasn’t. Not by a long shot. I figured it was the Swiss version of the Chinese water torture, where they bring you a basket of bread with only the promise of fondue and then watch you squirm. ‘Cause you know you can’t eat the bread or else you won’t have anything for the fondue. But you’re sooo hungry …
Finally the fondue came and to be honest it was actually pretty good. Certainly not worth the pains it took to get to the table, but at least they didn’t add insult to injury. But then again, how hard is it to screw up melted cheese. And they probably could’ve brought melted rubber and it would’ve tasted just as good.
We tried to ask for more bread, but since we were in their perpetual blindspot, it was easier to just walk up to the server’s area and stand in their way until they gave you a basket. Hours after we entered the restaurant we had finally reached the payment stage. And much to our horror, the exorbitant price they charged for fondue was per person. Ahh, there’s the insult.
When we got back to the hostel the owner asked us how it went, and we woefully recapped our night. He was especially outraged, since he had recommended the restaurant in the first place. So outraged, in fact, that he promised to call them up and complain, which he actually did. I don’t remember the name of the place or else I would shame the crap out of them, but if you’re ever in town it’s at the end of the main street as you take a right out of the train station.
It wasn’t an ideal ending to the weekend — since I intended on leaving for Geneva in the morning — but at least the girls and I bonded over something. Even if that something was only our mutual hatred of the service in that restaurant.