Day 7 - 21 Sep
Being in alpine terrain, the weather in Switzerland is changeable and somewhat unpredictable. Consequently, we have to be prepared to change our plans on the go and today we really needed to. The day was quite overcast when we set out from Lucern, although it did fine up a bit later in the morning as we arrived in Mieringen for our first excursion. This held promise for our planned afternoon activity, which was to ride the steam train from Brienz up to Rothorn, but more on that later.
For now, we were focussed on making our way to visit the Aare River gorge, or Aareschlucht. It is quite possible to walk to the far (East) entrance and walk back down, but in the interest of maximising our time in the area, we decided to take the local, single car train to the Aereschlucht Ost station. This ride provided our first surprise. As we moved to the rear door to exit the rail car, a helpful local lady directed us to the front door. We soon discovered why. The 'station' is a tiny platform inside the tunnel and the way out is a veritable hole-in-the-wall - a small arch, cut into the cliff, that leads straight to a suspension bridge over the river!
The Aareschlucht is a spectacular blend of raw nature and Swiss ingenuity. Carrying water from the distant peaks, over time the Aare River has cut a deep, narrow gorge through the surrounding limestone. The effects of the river, and earlier glaciers, have created a stunning testament to the power of nature. The gorge is filled with narrow, roaring flumes, overhanging cliffs, spiral drills? and pebble beaches at almost every bend. Without human modification, this gorge would be inaccessible to all but the hardiest explorers.
127 years ago the gorge was opened to the public after cantilevered walkways were attached to the Southern walls. At several points where the walkways would have been extremely difficult to construct, the Swiss, those consummate tunnellers, connected the walkways with tunnels, complete with windows into the gorge. The net result is a really wonderful, close up experience of raw nature - in complete comfort. Just the ticket for Grey Nomads! We walked the couple of kilometres downstream (and downhill!) to the West entrance of the Aareschlucht and were appropriately awestruck by the beauty and power on display. Words can't really describe it, but hopefully our pictures will help you to appreciate it too.
After we returned to Meiringen, we took the next train to Brienz, in order to catch the steam train up to Rothorn. Unfortunately, by the time we got there the weather had closed in and the webcam was showing almost whiteout conditions on the peak. Time to be flexible and, thanks to Angela's thorough research, we implemented our backup plan straightaway.
Said plan was to cycle the Aare Valley from Brienz to Meiringen, a distance of around 20kms by quiet roads. Unfortunately the local bike hire shop was elusive, so we decided to do some training first and catch the next train back to Meiringen. There were bonuses to this option - the bikes were supposedly cheaper from Meiringen station; one way rental to most stations was allowed; and if all else failed, we could just head back to Lucerne for a bit of local sightseeing. To our advantage, trains in Switzerland are frequent and run like clockwork, so we were quickly on our way back up the valley.
Back in Meiringen our Swiss Travel Pass (STP), having already given us the flexibility to use the trains as much as we wanted, provided our first discount- the bike hire was reduced by around 20%. A disadvantage was that one way rental was available to Interlaken, but not Brienz. What to do? Cycle a further 20 kms? Give up the idea and go back to Lucerne? Nope - use the STP to advantage. We decided to cycle to Brienz and, once again, get the train back to Meiringen - we must love the Aare Valley!
So, kitted up and ready to go, we cycled off in search of the fabled bike route 381. We had seen signs for it earlier in the day, so it didn't take long to find and very soon we were on the way. The route very quickly moved to narrow, very lightly trafficked lanes and, with our excellent bikes, we were soon rolling merrily along. The valley, in the somewhat misty and overcast conditions, was not at its visual best which, together with the fact the trail is mostly not within sight of the river, was somewhat disappointing. Nevertheless, the trail was usually well signposted and, despite a few stretches of poor surface, it was a comfortable trip. The ride produced one moment of great excitement, when a Swiss Air Force jet flew up the valley at low level. I'll have to wait until I get back to my computer to see if the GoPro caught it! The rest of the ride was uneventful- even the last 5km on the main road where all the drivers gave us a wide berth - until we realised, about 2km from the station, that with a bit of extra effort we could make the next Lucerne train.
So we pressed on a bit harder, rolled onto the platform and straIght into the train with about 30 seconds to spare! Nothing like a tight timeline to keep us on our toes! But wait, there's more. The train had a six minute scheduled stop at Meiringen, which was all the time we had to get the bikes off and returned to the station rental. In the end, it wasn't even a challenge - we had a whole three minutes to spare... We then headed along the Aare Valley for the sixth time that day, until the train branched off for the scenic ride to Lucerne.
Back at the apartment, we dined on our roast chicken and salad dinner, courtesy of the local Co-op supermarket, reflected on a very satisfying day and made our plans for the rest of the week. Factored into that planning were the lessons learned from today - the STP is extremely valuable, especially considering the freedom it gives us to change our plans in a hurry; and Swiss trains are frequent, reliable and comfortable. Our train safari around Switzerland is off to a cracking start!