For our vacation this year, Tracey and I decided to go on a more hike-oriented trip through the Alps. Hitching a ride on one of our My Way Alpine Tours, we packed our bags, left scorching Seattle, and started our adventure in even more scorching Salzburg!
The itinerary roughly went East-to-West, and is likely best visualized with a very handy map.
Flying out to Munich via Reykjavik, we landed Saturday afternoon, cleared customs, and immediately took Munich’s hybrid commuter rail system to the main train station in town. Grabbing our tickets, we settled our tired selves into one of the hourly trains to Salzburg, Austria.
Arriving in the very warm and muggy Salzburg was especially fun. Trudging to our AirBnB we quickly settled in before going off to buy groceries and water. Lots of water. The time is 17:40. We quickly find that the store closest to our apartment closed at 17:30 and reopened on Monday. Well, okay, so we started walking to the center of town: surely there is a store open later there, right? Spending our energy in the form of sweat, we discover that this is indeed a terribly incorrect assumption: everything is closed until Monday. Things are not looking so great when I dash off a quick tweet of forlorn sadness about our current situation. And then an angel appeared in the form of a coworker who had edited our book section on Salzburg a few months before and noted that the Spar in the train station was open until very late in the evening. We were saved! The recon was correct! The night was warm, but we settled into the warm apartment at least on the road to hydration as the skies filled with rolling thunderstorms.
A few years ago I learned that I really liked going on a bus tour the first full day in a Europe trip. It’s a good way to shift to the “tourist” mode while not having to worry about too much: you get to go see and do things without taxing your very jetlagged and dehydrated brain. After stopping by our new favorite Spar store, we grabbed the first bus to Berchtesgaden, Germany.
Berchtesgaden is known mostly for the “Eagle’s Nest,” which was a mountaintop house constructed for Adolf Hitler. It was never really popular with Hitler, and for this reason it was mostly spared destruction by the Allies and German governments after World War II was concluded. After a hike to the Königssee and some pretzels, we made our way back to the town to start our tour up the mountain side to the Kehlsteinhaus–Eagle’s Nest in German.
Ascending to the mountain, we traced the former locations of what was formerly the favored retreat of Nazi officials. Not much remained, but the faint ruins of many bunkers were still visible. In fact, we explored the Obersalzburg bunker system, which was a large complex designed to provide security and protection for German officials.
Making our way to the top of the mountain, it was immediately clear why the site was chosen for a building.
After passing out from the heat, continued dehydration, and not understanding what time it was at all, we woke up from and started exploring Salzburg proper. In the nooks and crannies of the old town, we found a wall that Rick Steves’ claims was damaged by an American tank trying to force its way through to a nearby brothel. The brothel is real, the damage is real, but I’m not sure if they’re related. The wall:
Our final day in Salzburg, we went forth to explore the castle, as one does. Taking an elevator up to one part of the hill, we spent a few hours hiking to the castle while spotting all sorts of interesting features and side fortifications along the way.
It was a fairly typical fortress, but had quite a large amount of fairly well-preserved structures and still had things like its well-constructed supply cable train.
Our last night in the city, we went on a Sound of Music bicycle tour. The movie isn’t really our thing, but these tours came highly recommended by people who don’t even like musicals. We saddled up on our bikes and went through the city seeing various locations from the movie before venturing to the countryside to view the current location of the Gazebo. There’s something very surreal biking through the Austrian countryside while a bluetooth speaker is blasting Julie Andrews.
If nothing else, it was a nice wrap-up to the city that had been our home for the previous four nights. We were waking up early the next day for a short bus ride over to our next destination: the salty lakeside town of Hallstatt!
Although the ruins at Hallstatt don’t date back before the Romans, the area itself has a historical culture named after it, the Hallstatt Culture. Prized for its salt reserves in the mountain above it, the town is perched on a lake that enabled the valued mineral to be shipped throughout Europe.
We arrived at our pristine waterfront hotel around 11am, and promptly went off to go on a local hike to a small river-cut valley surrounded by the salty mountains. Hopping our way through a few barriers along the way…
We eventually made it to the Waldbachstrub waterfall, which was part of a popular hike to European royalty in the 19th century.
Back in town, we explored the idyllic back roads before encountering the local Catholic church. Near the main building, a small Romanesque chapel was open, and completely devoid of people. Washed with pure white light, the chapel featured wood carvings and a simple altar fitting for the mining profession.
Beneath the chapel was the bone chapel. Space was tight at Hallstatt, and graves were rented: if nobody paid the rent for your grave every 10 years, your bones were interred in the space beneath. The skulls were lovingly painted, and if you were a priest your bones were placed on top of bibles. It was a very surreal place.
Most of the families here live in large houses that they shared with other families. Now that the population has fallen due to decreased mining activity, most of these buildings now have rooms for long-term rent.
Behind Tracey is part of the main town: it’s very small!
As quickly became typical for this trip, the landscape was aggressively mountainous.
After spending a week in German-speaking regions, we travelled down to the South Tyrol region of Italy. They mostly speak German here too–and the culture is primarily Germanic. However, due to lots of geopolitics and wars, this area is under Italian control, albeit with Scotland-like amounts of freedom from the general government.
Our home base for the next couple of days was the city of Bolzano. The culture is a strange mixture of German and Italian. I frequently found myself mixing up the languages in the same sentence: throwing in the German number with the Italian nouns and verbs. It didn’t exactly help matters that almost all of the signs and places had both the German and Italian names present. Bolzano, for instance, was labeled as Bolzano/Bozen in almost all locations.
Despite the Italian-ness of Bolzano, we weren’t here for the city, but the surrounding countryside. After a night in our rather plush hotel room listening to more thunderstorms, we woke up at the crack of dawn and took an early bus to the base of the Alpe di Siusi. Entering the Gondola station, we had the car to ourselves as we were whisked up to the base of the meadow.
The Alpe di Siusi is a very large alpine meadow surrounded by the glass-cut Italian Dolomites, and offered a network of charlifts, trails, and alpine “cabins” to help facilitate exploration. After grabbing a detailed hiking map, we were on our way to a ridge hike that threaded its way past a few of the alpine cabins in the area.
Being an alpine meadow, there were plenty of valleys, small streams, and free-ranging cows peacefully grazing.
As we made our way up to the upper part of the ridge, the ominous sounds of thunder started rumbling through the valley. We were fairly far from both nearby cabins, and decided to push forward. Soon enough, the winds picked up to extremely powerful gusts, and the rain started pouring down while we quickly bivouacked near a small depression on a hill. The lighting was cloud-to-cloud, so it was quite the show! After a few minutes, the storm passed and we started to dry ourselves off in the now sunny weather.
Apparently pigs occasionally hang out with the cows.
After a few more hours, our long day of alpine hiking was over and we took a few chairlifts back to the upper gondola station, where we took it down into a now rainy base of the mountains. Busing back to Bolzano, we quickly went to sleep with the constant rumbling of, you guessed it, thunder in the background.
Bright and early, we were off to the German town of Füssen. A town just shy of 15,000 souls, Füssen is located in Bavaria and mostly known for one thing: being the base for visits to the castles of Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau. You’ve probably heard of them: the former heavily inspired the prototypical “Disney Castle.”
If the first half of the tour was characterized by scorching days and humid thunder-filled nights, the second half transitioned into cooler weather and constant rain. Between some breaks in the rain, we did a walking tour of the town.
Füssen is located on the Lech River, which is decidedly milky in color and a tributary of the more famous Danube river.
The following day, we joined our tour manager Dan and rode the bus a few miles over to Austria. Embarking on a rural path, ourselves, Dan, and a few others started walking through the very foggy and rainy Bavarian countryside into Germany. An hour or so into the hike, we ran into a small cabin and gate: the former guarded border crossing into Germany. It’s a reminder that Europe was much more tightly restricted, and the ease of travel is fragile: the station looked well-maintained and ready to be commissioned again with minimal notice.
Soon enough, we reached the small town located beneath the castles: which we assumed were nearby. Hohenschwangau was mostly visible, but the fog completely obscured Neuschwanstein except for very faint outlines. Slogging up the rainy hill, we eventually made it to the fabled structure.
Back in Füssen, we visited the High Castle in town, which was a fairly well-kept castle that served as a secondary art gallery for the State. Interestingly enough, the castle was covered in paintings decided to give the optical illusion that the structure was much more elaborate than it really was. If you look more closely to this picture, you’ll see almost all of the ornamentation is painted on.
The gallery was full of extremely amazing pictures, but this small detail of one is perhaps one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. HE’S REALLY HAPPY TO SEE JESUS.
Nearby, an old abbey featured some roman ruins, interesting paintings, and a Chapel-Library.
Departing Germany once again, we took a small stop at the microstate of Liechtenstein. They’re wealthy, small, and basically just like Austria and Switzerland. Not too much to do in the capital of Vaduz, but it was a fun place to spend an hour.
After experiencing (briefly) Liechtenstein, we arrived at our destination for the next few nights: Lauterbrunnen Valley, deep in Switzerland. As we drove through Lucerne, the road quickly led us to a a narrow valley flanked by steep waterfall-laden cliffs on both sides. At one side of this valley, the town of Lauterbrunnen would serve as our base location. Rivendell is often claimed to be inspired by this location, and it’s no surprise at all.
The valley is known for the Jungfrau and Schilthorn peaks: but it was so foggy none of these were worth the time or money spent just to ascend into clouds! Since most of the itinerary of the valley depends on you choosing one side to go up and explore, we went with Jungfrau as it offered slightly more options in cloudy weather. We took a gondola up to Grütschalp before hiking along a small railway to Mürren, a resort-y town high above one of the cliffs. From there, another funicular took us to the start of our hiking trail, which was essentially devoid of people.
The trail, however, was not devoid of cows. There were many of them, and these two were particularly blocking of our trail.
A detour was required.
The hike reminded us of Ireland, but behind that fog are spectacular peaks that we couldn’t see.
Some of the landscape was still visible as we plodded our way along green trails, farms, and more cows.
Our route down to Gimmelwald had a fork in the trail: one of which went down to a fairly spectacular waterfall. The sign noted Vorsicht!, which is especially noteworthy as the Germanic culture typically doesn’t pay much heed to warning people about the dangers of specific hikes. Regardless, we went forth. And quickly discovered the waterfall trail went under the waterfall. Which was all well and good, except it had been raining all week and the entire cliffside was covered in fog. And, of course, there were no railings or other barriers. So we plodded back up the very steep and abandoned trail to find the slightly less dangerous route.
A few hours later, we were in the small town of Gimmelwald. It wasn’t a bad view to enjoy a meal.
After a very steep Gondola ride back down the valley from Gimmelwald, we started walking back to our home base when it started raining. We champed through it.
The last morning in the valley, we noted that a whole new level of peaks that appeared!
Passing our way through some old Roman towns and ruins (for the entire area was very popular with the Romans), we barely crossed the border into France when we stopped at the town of Chamonix. Although decidedly French, it was the hybrid Alpine culture we had noted in other areas such as Bolzano. In this case, along with the Germanic influences, Chamonix also had a strong British streak: the town is extremely popular with tourists from the British Isles.
The skies cleared as we entered France, and the weather was perfect for a view-filled hike. The day following our arrival, we walked along the Arve River to the village of Les Praz and took the first lift of the day to La Flégère. Unlike the meticulously cared for trails of Germany and Switzerland, the French trails are much rockier and rougher: small boulder scrambles aren’t uncommon and in many places we needed our Trekking Poles for stability.
Although the trail was up-and-down, we still steeply gained elevation until the first destination of the day: the glacial Lac Blanc. Along the placid shores, we ate lunch by the crystal-clear waters as the peak loomed above us in the clouds.
From the lake, a rough trail that is full of boulders moved down with the winter show went to L’Index. Popular with rock climbers, the area was extremely rough, and the rocky trail was unsettled: foot placement was critical!
In some places, it seemed like the trail went off the cliff.
As a worldwide tradition, cairns were often made from the sculpted rocks.
Eventually arriving at L’Index, we absorbed the views before taking the chairlift back down to La Flégère.
From there, it was just one final gondola ride away from Les Praz and the town of Chamonix.
With the Alps part of the journey complete, we flew to London from Geneva to start the second half of our trip, and to start transitioning it to a more city-oriented trip.
London was the usual busy self. We went to the British Museum at night, which made it fairly empty instead of the usual craziness this repository of stolen artifacts is known for. The British Library was also visited, along with bookstores where we managed to purchase even more books for our overcrowded suitcases and bookshelves.
First thing on Sunday, we went to the Churchill War rooms: which were a fascinating look at the leader of the United Kingdom as it went through the dark days of WWII. Afterwards, and since it was a Sunday, we went to where the people ain’t: the City. The Rick Steves’ city walk was basically empty, and it was great to see it in a less-crowded environment.
Being London, the architecture was strong.
Near the end of a day exploring, we found a small park that contained the ruins of a church bombed out and nearly destroyed during The Blitz. Now a sanctuary, it was a nice ending to a busy weekend.
Monday morning, I left our hotel and took the train to Gatwick where I started my journey back home. Tracey, however, was just getting started with her trip.
Although I was parting with the continent for now, Tracey continued on another 12 days and explored Amsterdam, Brugge, Paris, and spent another night in London.
Next up? We’re thinking Turkey.