I awoke this morning in the shadow of the snow-capped Eiger Mountain to the chorus of bells worn by cows grazing upon the rolling hills of Grindelwald, Switzerland.
Now, I’m standing 11,333 feet in the open air at Jungfraujoch, known as the Top of Europe.
More than two miles above sea level at the Sphinx Observatory, I’m perched on a metal observation platform anchored into solid rock of a plateau situated between the two other iconic peaks of the Swiss Alps: Mönch at 13,475 feet, and Jungfrau at 13,642 feet.
The Swiss flag, solid white cross on a red background, whips above my head from a pole, thanks to blustery 16 mile-per-hour winds. The temperature is a brisk, but comfortable, 28 degrees. When I look down through small, openings in the platform grates, I glimpse traces of snow and ice clinging to the underside along with – gasp! – vast spaces of nothingness falling away.
My husband, Bill, and I are on our first visit to Switzerland, and we’re experiencing the perfect definition of the country’s famed and fabled mountain architecture.
Grindelwald lies nestled in a green and welcoming hollow in the Bernese Oberland. Surrounding the village is a hulking, stirring mountain scape featuring the iconic Eiger north face and the Wetterhorn. One of the most visited destinations in the country, Grindlewald is a gateway to the Jungfrau region, with skiing in winter, hiking in the summer, access to high-altitude lookouts, and the starting point for ascents up the Eiger. Normally, Grindelwald’s population is 4,000. That number swells to 16,000 in the height of summer and winter.
And, in a special twist of fate, the roots of Bill’s family tree run deep here.
Bill’s maternal great-grandmother was born in Grindelwald in 1865, and emigrated to the United States in 1884. Relatives from her sister’s side, whom Bill had never met until this trip, still live in Grindelwald.
Furthering the connection, Bill’s distant third cousin, Ueli, and his wife, Rita, own the apartment we’re renting, which is attached to the lower level of their own chalet-styled home. Many homes in Grindelwald have signs prominently positioned on an exterior wall signifying their names; Ueli and Rita call their home Alpengärtli.
Their property is adjacent to land where Bill’s and Ueli’s great-great-grandparents, the ancestors from whom they’re both descended, lived and farmed. The 1845 homestead included a house and barn. While the original weatherworn barn remains, Ueli and his brother took down the house in 1997 and built another one for the brother, who still farms the land. Having lived in multiple homes in multiple states, I marvel at the successive generations who have spent their lives in the same surroundings.
Ueli, a lifelong resident of Grindelwald, is a renowned mountain climbing and trekking guide. He leads clients up the 13,026-foot Eiger as well as ranges elsewhere in Europe, Russia, Bhutan, and South America.
Hiking, biking, zip-lining and other alpine sports we’d like to do are, unfortunately, off my radar. I’m recuperating from a fractured ankle and wearing a supportive walking boot with doctor’s orders to restrict physical activity.
In addition, we’re here in late October, when the area is transitioning from summer to winter for the advent of ski season. Cable cars have stopped running to be adapted for ski lifts. Many warm-weather attractions have shut down.
Nevertheless, Bill and I are reveling in the scenery.
High-and-low-altitude magic in Grindelwald
Our journey from Grindelwald’s verdant valley to Jungfraujoch takes a little over an hour aboard the cogwheel Jungfrau Railway. Europe’s highest-altitude railway opened in 1912 after a 16-year construction period, during which the mostly Italian workforce blasted a tunnel through the rock of the Eiger and Mönch.
Once inside the summit, we disembark the railway and enter the highest-altitude railway station in Europe. We take another ride, a 27-second sprint inside Switzerland’s fastest lift, up to the observatory. Walking outside onto the terrace, my skin tingles, both from cold and mentally adapting to the altitude and openness. Far below at my left, Grindelwald is a barely discernible green speck. At my right, Aletsch Glacier, Europe’s longest at 14 miles, spreads forth glistening in the sun, frozen, stark, and harsh.
Back on terra firma, Grindelwald’s commercial district speaks to the village’s popularity as a resort. Hotel after hotel line the main street of Dorfstrasse. Heavy-duty, cold-weather outdoor clothing and serious athletic gear line shelves and merchandise racks of most shops.
Restaurants post menus and display sidewalk sandwich boards touting their versions of signature national dishes, all hearty enough to fuel a body for the vigorous alpine lifestyle.
Fondue is a communal meal, presented to us in a red ceramic pot heated with sterno. We grasp long forks to spear bread cubes and small boiled potatoes and swirl into the melted four-cheese mixture. Raclette, a fresh cow’s milk cheese melted over a fire, arrives at the table in a skillet-like pan with potatoes, gherkins, and pearl onions. Rösti, made from boiled, grated, and pan-seared potatoes, bears a striking resemblance and taste to the hash browns of my Midwestern childhood, with browned and crispy bits covering softer, paler shreds. Farmers originated the dish, often topping it with a fried egg and cheese.
This stick-to-our-ribs food serves us well the next day, too, in the nearby village of Lauterbrunnen, where we confront cold, dampness, and altitude, albeit amid stunning beauty.
Lauterbrunnen lies in a narrow trough valley between gigantic rock faces. Its name means “many fountains,” and that speaks to the magnificence of a landscape boasting 72 waterfalls. Staubbach Falls is the third largest in Switzerland, and descends nearly 1,000 feet from a hanging valley over a sheer rock face.
Farther down a winding road is Trümmelbach Falls, a UNESCO World Natural Heritage site. Trümmelbach has the only glacier waterfalls both inside a mountain and accessible.
Once again we ride a lift, traveling some 330 feet at a 45-degree angle inside a mountain. Here, 10 waterfalls drain the mighty glacier defiles of the Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau. Keenly aware of my no-tread walking boot, we climb partially illuminated steps, ramps, platforms, and tunnels carved out of the rock. Steep and and slick with moisture, they lead us to 10 observation points within crevices in the mountain.. The sound is deafening and exhilarating, as nearly 5,300 gallons of gurgling, churning, frothing water per second roar past us.
All in the family in Grindelwald
Amid such natural majesty, I’m just as moved watching Bill form personal ties with the land of his ancestors and come to know his Swiss family.
One night, we join Ueli, Rita, and two of their three children, Nina and Fabian, at their kitchen table. By coincidence, Simon, their elder son, happens to be in California’s Yosemite National Park climbing the granite cliffs of El Capitan.
Glasses of wine in hand, we trade photos and tell stories. Rita produces faded photos of Bill’s immediate family she had received when his mom and grandmother visited in the 1960s. Ueli carefully unravels poster-sized black and white photos from 1926 of a much smaller Grindelwald. He shows photos of himself as a child with his parents and two brothers taken at the original house before it was razed.
Bill shares photos of his great-grandmother’s travel documents for the United States, for which she (or perhaps a sponsor) paid 244 Swiss francs. That was a precious sum in those days, and equal to more than $5,000 U.S. dollars today. With Bill’s input, Rita charts a family tree identifying the generations.
Two key names are missing, however – Bill and Ueli’s great-great grandparents. Neither Bill nor Ueli knows who they were.
Fabian opens his iPad and begins scouring Swiss public records. At last he finds them, their names and marriage date recorded in the historical annals of Grindelwald’s Protestant church.
Bonds tighten as Rita sketches a new branch onto the family tree.
The Eiger obscured by the night sky, Bill and I walk down the garden steps to our apartment, serenaded by the ever-present chorus of cow bells.