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John Waelti: Swiss trip continues: On to the Bernese Oberland
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After two days in Canton Ticino south of the Alps, it was time to go back over the spine of the Alps to the north side. We crossed the Grimsel Pass (7,100 feet), pausing for a break on top. It was cold and windy, temperature in the 40s. From this vantage point, visitors can observe numerous Alpine peaks.

The trip down to the north was a series of hairpin curves and spectacular scenery. Hardy bicyclists were traveling up those hills - had to admire their hardiness.

The Bernese Oberland is the higher part of Canton Bern as distinct from the Bernese Unterland farther north. The Oberland includes the upper Aare Valley and numerous side valleys of tributaries. It includes Lake Thun and Lake Brienz of the Aare River, the two lakes separated by the city of Interlaken. The Oberland also includes the famous Alpine peaks, the Eiger, the Monch, and the Jungfrau. The Lauterbrunnen Valley, known also as the "Valley of the 72 waterfalls" is in the Oberland.

The Romans built early settlements along rivers and lakes. During the Middle Ages, villages grew around parish churches. During the 14th and 16th centuries, Berner Oberland villages began trading with grain producers in the Berner lowlands. With that, the alpine villages no longer had to depend on self-sufficiency in grain. hey could focus on raising cattle in the high Alpine pastures, bringing them down to the valleys for winter.

During the Napoleonic invasion of Switzerland in 1798, the Berner Oberland was separated from the canton of Bern, forming the Canton of Oberland. However as there was little enthusiasm for the new order, the two cantons were reunited in 1803.

As early as 1729, Albrecht von Haller published the poem, "Die Alpen" about his travels through Alpine regions. This, combined with other reports and alpine paintings, started the tourist industry in the Berner Oberland. By 1800 there were already resorts on Lake Thun and Lake Brienz, and especially at Interlaken between the two lakes. These were followed by resorts in the alpine valleys of Lauterbrunnen and Grindelwald, and began attracting English guests.

In the late 19th century, enabled by new transportation links, the Swiss tourism industry expanded. It became easier for people to travel into Switzerland's scenic valleys. British travel agent Thomas Cook, pioneer in group travel, was important in furthering British travel to Switzerland.

The Swiss tourism industry collapsed during the two world wars and the Great Depression. But after 1950, a new wave of hotel construction, holiday homes, and apartments led to growth and prosperity of the region.

Reaching Lake Brienz, our bus stopped at Ballenberg near the north shore of Lake Brienz. Ballenberg is an open-air museum that displays traditional buildings and architecture from all parts of Switzerland. Located on a 164-acre site, the museum has more than 100 buildings that have been transported from their original sites. Rooms of the buildings are recreated from the time period of the building. The facility is complete with live displays of weaving and wood carving. Goats, sheep, and contentedly grazing cows lend further authenticity.

The cows, with their melodic bells, seem to know how attractive they are and pretend to ignore the admiring tourists. The melodic cow bells contrast sharply to the roar of Swiss Air Force jets in the skies overhead, performing exercises the day we were there.

Our hotel is in Brienz, a village of 3,000, on the shore of Lake Brienz. The next day it is a trip up through the Lauterbrunnen Valley. While it is impossible to conclude that one part of Switzerland is more spectacular than another, the Lauterbrunnen Valley represents Switzerland as many of us generally think of it.

The village of Lauterbrunnen lies at the bottom of a U-shaped valley that extends south and southwestward from the village. The valley is one of the deepest in the Alpine chain when compared to the height of the mountains that rise directly on either side. The valley is rarely more than 1 km in width, between limestone precipices, sometimes nearly perpendicular, and everywhere of extreme steepness. To this is owed the numerous waterfalls that form high cascades.

This September day is bright and sunny as we arrive by bus at the village of Lauterbrunnen. We take a cable car up to Gruetschalp. From there, some of us take the hiking trail to Winteregg. From Winteregg we all take the train to yet another scenic village, Muerren, located on the edge of a cliff. We are fortunate that this is September: The weather is still ideal, the air crisp and clean. While there are still some tourists here, these villages are packed with hikers in summer and skiers in winter.

The village offers a view of the three famous mountains, the Eiger, the Monch, and the Jungfrau. The legend is that the Monch (Monk) is in the center to keep the Eiger (Rogue) away from the Jungfrau (young maiden).

After wandering through village streets, taking in views of the snow-capped mountains, and enjoying lunch at an outdoor café, we take another cable car ride down to Gimmelwald, reputed to be the favorite mountain village of travel writer Rick Steves. While one can understand why he favors Gimmelwald, it still is hard to say that one village is more spectacular than another. Off to the west of that village, we see some farmers harvesting hay on a steep hillside. It's almost as if this scene is just staged for tourists.

From there, it's a cable car down to the village of Stechelberg, then the bus over to Truemmelbach Falls. The Truemmelbach Falls are the world's only glacier waterfalls that are accessible underground by lift, galleries, tunnels, paths, and platforms. They carry melt water from glaciers of the Jungfrau down to the valley, up to 20,000 liters of water per second.

It's another spectacular wonder before returning to Brienz.

Next week: Off to Bern

- John Waelti of Monroe can be reached at His column appears Fridays in The Monroe Times.